You've probably seen the interactive combine ride simulator at Raising Nebraska exhibit hall at Nebraska State Fair or tractor simulators at children's museums across the country. And maybe your children have played farming simulation games or video games on their electronic devices, allowing the gamer to make farm management decisions or get the feeling of driving a tractor and implements up and down the field.
These games are extremely valuable, because they bring some of the farming experience to children and adults alike, and they expose folks who still have the 1920s idea of agriculture to modern farming technologies.
But they aren't the real thing. Virtual reality is just what the name implies — virtual. And that's probably a good thing if we are looking at the more difficult experiences that come along with real-life farming.
If I were designing a virtual reality game around the experience of farming, I would want the scenery and background to look, feel and smell like a farm or ranch.
Forget the greener-than-green pastures and obligatory red barn in the game animation. Let's have a machine shed and shop to go along with some mixed-grass pastures, complete with a few thistles to provide some resemblance to real life. My row crops in the game might be struck with hail or wind, like so many Nebraska crops were this past season. There would have to be an olfactory sensory gadget to provide the gamer with the odor of fresh-cut alfalfa, corn silage or freshly spread straw in the barn.
Of course, to balance those pleasant smells, we need to have the odors of manure, grain dust and a skunk that just sprayed the farm dog. That's reality on the farm.
Sensors must also provide a perception of feelings on the skin and muscles. The wonderful feeling of the fuzzy hide of a newborn calf would be nice. How about the softness of a horse's nose? And don't forget the kittens. Everyone loves the feeling of those soft kittens, just before they scratch or bite.
Of course, we would need to balance this out with feelings that are not so nice. I'm thinking of the hot, oozing, oily feeling of hydraulic fluid running down the front of your face and shirt when you try to fix a blown hydraulic line underneath the combine cab during harvest. That's a feeling you never forget. Tasting the hydraulic fluid in your mouth would add to the real-life experience of the game.
And let's not forget the feeling of excruciating pain when a 500-pound feeder calf being run through the chute for vaccinations reaches out with one of its hind legs and kicks you hard in the kneecap. That's the kind of injury you feel 30 years after the fact every time the weather changes. There is also the feeling of Jack Frost nipping and actually ripping into the skin on your nose causing frostbite when you are feeding cows on a day when the temperature is 10 degrees below and the wind is blowing 30 miles per hour.
In the "olden days," as my children like to call them, when I was growing up, farm kids didn't need virtual reality games to get a feeling of the farming experience. We lived it. We lived with some of the real-life pain of growing up on a farm, and we lived to enjoy the real-life experiences of seeing new life every day and appreciating a real sunrise and sunset over the pasture hills.
Virtual reality is great and it gives folks a sense of reality. But the real deal is always more vivid. Besides, farming isn't a game, at least not to the folks who live and work on one.