01/14/2013 12:38 EST | Updated 03/16/2013 05:12 EDT

What I Learned This Week: Not All Experiences Are Real


As you read this, I am flying home after a 10-day snowboarding vacation in Vail, Colorado; one that has left my body bruised and wracked with throbs of pain. It's not anything new; I've been doing the same thing every holiday season for the past two decades. Granted, tearing down a mountain, knees pumping up and down, in the freezing cold is not everyone's idea of fun and relaxation...but it's one of mine.

And here's what I worry about -- doing something like this will be the idea of fun of fewer and fewer people as the years go on.

On one hand, that's no big deal.

On the other, it's a tectonic shift in future human social behaviour.

Let me explain the scary part with a seemingly innocuous, yet telltale, story.

During my full-day lesson with legendary snowboard instructor Chris "Sando" Sandowski (see last week's post for more details), he regaled me with the tale of teaching two sharp, good-looking kids. The standard operating procedure when one signs up for a lesson is being asked to fill out a form establishing a level of expertise; this helps the instructor know where to start and how to guide the student. For their self-evaluation, the kids put "Level 7," which is relatively advanced, yet not uncommon amongst the youth who ride Vail.

When Sando eventually met the kids, he was astonished. The pair stood over their boards as if they were foreign objects, and had no idea how to even step into their bindings.

"Uh, what gives?" a perplexed Sando asked. "I thought you said you were Level 7!"

"We are," they replied sincerely. "On the video game."

The end result that fateful day was a true lesson for the boys; one that I suspect their butts, knees and elbows still feel. (I remember my first few times snowboarding; my teacher then described it as a boxing match...with me as a Flyweight, and the mountain as Muhammad Ali in his prime.)

So all this said, here's what worries me -- with a new generation of kids growing up with so much re-created virtually, what chance does cold, hard reality have?

Quite fittingly, the day that Sando recounted the story to me, last Wednesday, was perhaps the busiest day of all at the annual CES (Consumer Electronic Show) tech orgy in Las Vegas. Over 20,000 new products were introduced at this year's event, each more mind-boggling than the last. Wall-sized TVs that deliver glass-less 3D; robot cars; ovens, refrigerators, lightbulbs and soccer balls that can be controlled from your smartphone; forks that buzz when you eat too fast or too much.

And that's just what is here now. Coming soon, though -- REAL soon! -- will be stunningly-accurate, tactile virtual reality that will simulate everything from massage to sex to snowboarding.

So instead of laughing at Sando's sore students, I think that before we know it, they'll be laughing at us behind high-tech goggles as they pull dizzying 360-degree jumps off virtual cliffs. Yeah, they'll actually "feel" the bumps, but they'll do so from the warm, toasty and safe comfort of their couches.

If I were a ski hill operator, I'd be scared. Same thing goes for people who own beach resorts, strip clubs, yoga studios, gyms...anywhere you have to travel to for a tactile experience. Sounds nuts, but they may face extinction. Pretty soon, any experience you want will actually come to you. Today's hi-def 3D will seem like prehistoric, scratchy black-and-white as "look and feel" literally becomes "look" and "feel." What's coming is a blurring between what is digitally created, and what is real. Go figure that with his album Reality...What a Concept! Robin Williams would be one of the 20th Century's most prescient visionaries.

So what did I learn this week? I learned how to handle a mountain way more proficiently than ever on my snowboard...but also learned that before I know it, WAY before I want it, that lesson will probably be irrelevant.

Until that time though, I will step into a whirlpool to help deal with the hurting.

And treasure the feeling of actually getting wet.