Get lost with us, my ticket implores, showing a man in a space suit walking away into a pool of light.
After boarding the ticketless Staten Island Ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan, chugging steadily past the Lady of Liberty, and boarding a yellow school bus, I find myself stepping onto the sweeping green grounds and botanical gardens of Snug Harbor cultural center.
Like a college campus on the first day of orientation, banners everywhere welcome us to the "Future of Storytelling University," which, the guide boasts, is "technically the oldest university in the world, founded around 800 B.C. when a guild of poets gathered to memorize epic poems for posterity."
I know I am in for a day of imagination, creativity, curiosity, and fun.
I know there will be tech and film exhibits and pop-up theater and musicians and taco trucks.
What I don't know is that I am about to have a series of virtual reality experiences that will blow my mind, and send my thoughts reeling about the state of technology today.
I am about to feel a deep appreciation for the vastness and diversity of the human imagination; as well as a sense of wonder, tinged with trepidation, at all the possibilities and implications and second- and third- order consequences that these technologies entail.
We can't get them all into one story. Here is one to get us started.
Fall in Love is inspired by the famous study led by psychologist Arthur Aaron and published in the New York Times, suggesting that it's possible to fall in love with anyone.
I step behind a white curtain, don goggles and headphones, and am greeted by 6 virtual people standing in a semi-circle on the home screen, waiting to be chosen for a first date.
My attention causes a light to shine down on whomever I'm looking at. I choose a guy in a brown leather jacket named "Logan."
Almost immediately, I regret NOT choosing someone who is less my type, to see if it's possible to feel feelings against the odds. But oh well, Logan will have to do.
The home screen fades and we are transported to a meadow at the golden hour; sunlight filters down through leaves. I crane my head around and see meadow in all directions, a few boulders here and there among the trees.
But right across the table from me is Logan, gazing at me with openness and curiosity.
"Hi," he says. "It's nice to meet you. I know it's a little strange... Do you want to start?"
I look down at two cards suggesting questions I can ask him. The simulation is directed by my voice.
I ask the first one and he tells a brief story about being from Indiana. When the story is finished, he looks at me meaningfully for a moment and then reverts to what I will come to think of as "Resting Pose."
I ask: "What would you do if you had one year left to live?"
He looks away, then back, and says: "I'd get married. I'd want to spend that time with someone. We wouldn't need to do anything fancy, I'm not a fancy kind of guy. But just having that someone to pass the time with, you know?"
At this my eyes give an involuntary roll, thinking of the designers who must have presumed that anyone who chooses Logan's character will swoon at this kind of answer.
And yet, his mannerisms and the way he holds himself are extremely convincing; even life-like.
I am certain that virtual Logan is derived from a real person, sharing his real story; absent-mindedly running a real hand through his hair.
For a moment I think Logan might ask me something back, but he simply waits. Strange, I think, that reciprocity should be missing from the falling-in-love equation. Maybe if I smile he will mirror this back at me? I try it; no luck.
I ask Logan about his earliest childhood memory, and then his most painful one. I ask about the best gift he ever gave, and what inanimate object he would choose to be.
"Well, I can't say a tree because that's a living thing. Maybe a rock? But not a piece of granite, more like a smooth river stone. And I'd be facing north, so that maybe some moss will grow and I'll have a little hair. And then maybe a tree root would grow next to me, and wrap me up in a big hug."
I am struck by how much time he takes to consider his answers; how he frowns and has false starts and spur-of-the-moment elaborations.
I wonder if the human being they studied for this looks at all like Logan, and conclude that no real person looks this perfect. I also find his perfect focus off-putting; the way he is not at all distracted by his surroundings or his smartphone.
I ask him to summarize his life story in one sentence.
He thinks. He starts, and stops. He thinks some more.
Then, a lightbulb. "You gotta grow stuff to keep growing!" he says, with the grin of someone who grew up on a farm. For a few moments he lets the answer settle, his smile softening in my direction.
Then he shifts back into Resting Pose.
While he shares another story, I look around again at the meadow and then down at my body. It's not there; just an empty stump where I should be sitting. Design flaw, I think.
Finally I follow the suggestion at the bottom of the table and say:
"It's been nice talking with you, but I have to go."
As soon as the words leave my mouth, Logan's face goes very still -- as though he is trying to be strong.
Gradually, a hint of sadness fills his eyes as the meadow scene fades to darkness.
And to my great surprise, I feel a small inner tug...
... As though just now realizing that I don't want him to leave.