Virtual Reality in Cleveland


People who move away from the state they grew up in tell pollsters they leave for economic reasons. Those who stay cite family relationships and connections. That sounds about right. I left Cleveland for work. There are more opportunities to write and edit in bigger cities such as Washington and Los Angeles. (Although the Internet is turning some of these jobs into telecommuting positions, which mitigates the advantage of location. Not entirely, though. Face-to-face relationships matter.)

I couldn’t find any data on what factor weather plays in migration, but my thinking is that it matters some. Boston, Chicago and New York are larger cities that also have lousy winter weather, but those cities are dynamic business, capital, technology and educational centers. People will pay the price of bad weather in exchange for the opportunities afforded by living there. Cleveland does not have their allure. Add in the awful weather, and there are more reasons to move if you’re a new college grad who doesn’t mind living away from parents.

Which is why I think Mark Zuckerberg’s purchase of Oculus Rift could be terrific news for Cleveland.


Follow me on this one. It’s 2024. “Melissa” teaches at an experimental charter school. It’s completely virtual. She works from home in her Shaker Heights basement. Her students are in their bedrooms all over Cleveland. They’re all learning via virtual reality headsets, which not only connect them as if they are in the same room but give Melissa access to an Internet’s worth of video, photos and web pages with which to teach. These children will have never heard of a slide projector. The students who get stuck on math problems use their Khan Academy plug-ins for help quite a bit. Analytics allow Melissa and school administrators to see which students are slipping and where so as not to let them fall behind.

There is a one-hour recess, which Melissa uses to make a smoothie, log into the “Los Angeles” setting on her virtual reality glasses and jog down Santa Monica beach, which thanks to Google’s Google Earth plugin, looks exactly like Santa Monica Beach. While she is jogging she is able to soak in the sights or send and receive email, phone calls and text messages.

One of the messages is from her real estate agent. She thinks Melissa should sell. Virtual reality is causing a massive population shift. People are now fleeing the overcrowded and expensive coastal cities for more livable and affordable cities like Cleveland, and her giant, 100-year-old home could fetch quite a sum. She’ll think about it.

Melissa’s students, meanwhile, eat lunch at home and then log back in and play virtual games of kickball, tag and baseball, not unlike we play on the Wii today. They talk directly or text to each other and tell secrets or share jokes, just like kids everywhere. A school administrator watches over them to make sure no one misbehaves.

School resumes in the afternoon, and the students partake in independent study projects. Melissa is on hand to guide them and answer any questions, as are older students from the same school who volunteer to help their younger counterparts. The boys in the class are working on creating a perfect simulation of Cleveland Browns Stadium to play football in. Some of the girls are too, as virtual reality has leveled the gender playing field for virtual sports. The best quarterback in the class is also its smallest girl, in terms of physical stature. But she has a great arm and knows how to read a “cover-2 zone” better than any of the boys.

After school our teacher Melissa logs off for an hour, takes care of some errands, and then she logs onto the Winking Lizard plugin, where she hangs out with her friends and plays trivia and other games. Someone suggests they all go check out the Pyramids of Egypt, much like today we might say, “Let’s go see a movie.”

“I can’t afford the Pyramids,” says Melissa. “Not on a teacher’s salary.”

That’s OK, says her friend, “John.” His employer, Progressive Insurance, bought all of its Cleveland employees the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China as a holiday bonus this year. Progressive spends a lot of money on virtual benefits because they lead to higher employee retention and satisfaction at its Cleveland headquarters.

After a few hours of exploring the Pyramids, Melissa logs off. She spends an hour in her living room playing piano, which she has been learning from a teacher in Japan. It’s important, she knows, to keep some roots in the real world, especially when she’s spending all day online.

At bedtime she brushes her teeth, changes into her sweats and walks to the kitchen for a glass of water. She looks out the window for the first time all day and notices how hard it’s snowing.

She clicks off the light and heads to bed.


Photo by Erik Drost

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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