Report from MS Build 2017: Mixed Reality, A High Building, and the Realization that I am Not Neo

I've spent the last few days at Microsoft Build 2017 meeting literally hundreds of developers. We've talked JavaScript, we've talked Xamarin and .NET and reporting, and on this last morning, I'm tired but looking forward to another great day chatting with prospective customers.

Mixed Reality

The big theme this year has been mixed reality. The Hub is peppered with kiosks and closed-in rooms allowing attendees to fly a plane, drive a semi truck, watch movies with a distant friend, and generally interact with the physical world in a virtual reality. The keynote yesterday introduced motion controllers, handheld joysticks that give the user more actions within the simulation. We've seen set design by mixed reality, designing jets, and more. The future is now.

Along those lines, this has been my view this week:


See that kiosk? That's The Ledge, built by Two-Bit Circus.

It's a mixed reality experience in which you're standing on a slightly shifting platform, window-washer style, hundreds of stories up in the air. I've been watching the line all week, deciding whether I wanted to brave my acrophobia and try it out.

After all, I thought: I KNOW I'm safe. Rationally, I know I'm standing on a platform in a conference hall, not shifting thousands of feet in the air next to the Shanghai Tower. So I volunteered to be their first tester of the morning, before the hall opened. Justin Mack, GrapeCity's customer engagement manager, filmed the experience.

It turns out my reptile brain has a much more intense fear of heights than my rational brain has brains.

(View in YouTube here.) Most of the video is me staring up at the approaching support for the window-washing ledge I'm standing on. If you're bored by my slow ascent, take note of my white-knuckle grip on the railing behind me. The whole way up, my rational brain screamed at me: "This is not real. NOT REAL. You're fine. You're perfectly safe." Reptile brain whispered, very close to my ear so I could hear very well: "Remember that time at Seven Springs when you got on the ski lift and it didn't have a safety bar and you went all the way up the mountain without one and you almost cried and you were ten and that was TERRIFYING, wasn't it?"

I am Not the One

By the time I reached the top, I mustered the courage to look slightly to my left, where I saw the top railing of the platform. Reptile brain stopped whispering and began talking in a normal voice, telling me quite clearly that that's the ledge you're standing on, you see how narrow it is? Then they dropped the safety bar in front of me. I think that's when my legs started shaking. Then they tried to get me to look down. If you want some real fun, skip forward to about 2:56, when he asks me to step forward. I knew he'd ask me to do that, and still I pretty much collapsed into a blathering mass of terror, babbling that I know I'm in the Matrix, I know I'm really here, but it turns out I am totally not Neo so please get me down because I'm going to die soon. He pulled the mask off my head, consoling me and saying that my reaction was his favorite kind, because it showed the realism of the experience. I get that, I do. But it took about ten minutes to come down from the adrenaline rush that had my hands and legs trembling. To be honest, I still haven't recovered; I'm way too sweaty for a chilly conference hall.

Practical Applications for Virtual Terror

We can all see the entertainment side of an experience like this, but I saw a practical application immediately: if I rode up that ledge every day for a few weeks, maybe my acrophobia would begin to abate. After all, a phobia is an irrational fear: you're safe, you're not in real danger, but Little Ms. Reptile Brain is whispering sinister threats convincingly enough that your rational brain pretty much just rides the wave. In the safe world of the headset and headphones, with time, I might someday be able to step off that ledge and go full Neo. Someday. An attendee approached me afterward and we commiserated on our mutual fear. He leads training for a financial firm, and said he could use something like that to teach his trainees how to deal with upset customers--sad, angry, etc.--and agreed that, with time, he'd be able to teach them how to not react emotionally to someone else's anger, while still remaining empathetic. It's a great program. I can't wait to see what else mixed reality brings. But next time I might skip the Ledge.


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