Much to her amazement – and annoyance – Jan realised that she was beginning to be impressed by the capabilities of her cousin’s computer. Hal realised it too.
“You see?” he said triumphantly, turning to look at Jan for the first time – his eyes were brown, she noticed. “You can’t get more creative than that. It’s turned something totally imaginary into something real.”
“That’s not real,” Jan countered, “it only looks real. It doesn’t really exist – you can’t live in it like your father’s loft conversion.”
“You reckon? Well, look at this…”
“Wait a minute, while I get out of this and into another program.”
Jan waited. And waited. Whatever the other program was it was taking ages to open up on the computer. In the end she lost interest and wandered back toward the window.
The sun was at its highest point and the sky was a flawless blue. A gentle breeze shimmered through the leaf-rich line of trees along the roadside as they slumbered in the smothering heat. Three seagulls skimmed coastward overhead.
This was reality, she thought. Here was where things really lived and breathed and touched and smelled and tasted.
Jan scanned the flat horizon but the ruined tower was nowhere to be seen, presumably obscured by the line of trees or the slight rise in the land toward the coast. But, if she screwed her eyes up slightly and applied her imagination, vague shapes and shadows could just about be made out in the field next to the sky. Ancient earthworks, she conjectured.
“Here you are, look at this.” Hal’s voice brought her back to the here and now. “You’ll need to put this on to see it properly. It’s called a head-mounted display – HMD for short.”
He was holding what looked like an elongated, slim-line version of a motorcycling visor fitted with the arms of a very stylish pair of sunglasses. Several wires dangled from the back of it, one connected to the front of Hal’s computer and the others to a pair of in-ear speakers.
“Must I?” The image on the computer screen was of a wooded landscape with a lake and distant mountains. Jan noticed that as Hal handed her the headset the perspective changed.
“You’ll have to wear it to get the full effect,” he repeated. “Come on, take my seat.”
Jan sat down, placed the speakers in her ears and then gingerly put the headset on. Immediately she found herself standing in the wooded landscape. It completely filled her field of vision. She turned her head to the left, and saw the trees on the left. She looked down. There was the ground.
“How do I move forward?” she asked before she had time to disguise her fascination.
“Use the mouse.”
She fumbled about on the desktop, trying hard to find something in one world while her eyes were looking into another. When at last she found it she moved herself about in all directions, wandering in wonderment through the woods and down toward the lake.
“Brilliant, eh?” enthused Hal from somewhere outside her realm of experience. “It’s called virtual reality. It’s as close to being real as makes no difference.”
Jan snatched the helmet off her head and looked straight at her cousin.
“There’s a whole world of difference, Hal. You can’t touch it or smell the pine wood or feel the breeze.”
“You will be able to soon. They’ve already developed a ‘power glove’ that lets you reach out and handle things in the virtual world.”
Jan let out a burst of laughter.
“What on earth for?” she demanded, standing up. “Why create a virtual world when we’ve got a real one all around us? Look outside your bedroom window, Hal. That’s reality. Real sky, real earth, real trees…”
“Real ghostly cities rising from the sea,” Hal added, with just a hint of sarcasm. “The virtual forest on my computer’s a lot more real than your legendary lost city – at least you can see it and walk about in it, not like …”
Hal stopped abruptly. He could see an idea dawning on his cousin’s face. Jan stared at him inquisitively then turned away and frowned into the middle distance for a moment then turned back, her eyes wide open.
“Could you join those two programs together?” she asked expectantly.
“How do you mean?”
“Could you create something on your Dad’s CAD stuff then walk around it using this headgear?” She glanced down at the head-mounted display then back up at her cousin.
“Probably – I’ve never tried. Why?”
“We could recreate old Wickwich.”
Hal sat back in his chair and looked straight in Jan’s direction. But his eyes were not focussed on his cousin. They were already looking toward the technical challenges ahead.
“Yeah,” he said, eventually, “that would be cool.”
He returned to his keyboard and smiled at the screen. “Now that would make this legend of yours real.”
Jan smiled as well – to herself.