The day reality became unbearable: A peek beyond Apple's AR/VR headset
As tech giants push the boundaries of augmented reality and intelligent assistants, and with Apple expected to release a mixed reality headset at WWDC, David Gewirtz conjures artificial reality's dark future, when our only world is a fake world.
When I first published this speculative fiction in early 2019, the AR and VR world consisted of an enterprise version of Google Glass, and some large headsets from the likes of Oculus (Meta) and a few smartphone vendors. The AR-dominated reality described in this story was many years into the future. It still is. But with Apple's anticipated entry at WWDC 2023 into the mixed-reality market, we might be moving closer to the world I've described. Of course, like most speculative or science fiction, this story is a product of the author's imagination, mixed with a bit of prognostication, a dab of hyperbole, and some heavy geek cred. Let me know what you think in the comments.
"D. P. C. Z. L. F... I don't know, T?"
"That's not bad, Jack."
Jack was always tense during eye exams, but Doctor Wasserman was friendly and reassuring. "So, do I need a new prescription, Doc?"
Wasserman chuckled. "It's been three years, and you're in your forties. Of course, you do. But the big question now is, do you want to try out the new Erika glasses? We just got them in."
Jackson T. Reed considered himself a gadget guy. His house had an Erika smart assistant in every room, and he'd been reading about the new glasses for months. Unlike the Giggle Gazes from a decade ago, when the e-commerce giant Hudson developed the Erika glasses, Hudson's engineers recognized that prescription patients were the most likely consumers to be comfortable with wearing glasses, so they'd make the best early adopters.
Jack smiled a big wide smile. "Sure, Doc. I've already chosen my frames. Hook me up with a pair of Gerikas."
Another big difference from the Giggle Gaze of years past was that Hudson waited until it could create augmented reality glasses that looked just like normal eyewear. While Giggle Gaze wearers looked strange and were commonly referred to as "Gazeholes," the Erika-based AR glasses looked good on people. The tech media immediately dubbed them "Gerikas," conflating the words glasses and Erika.
An hour later, Jack's Gerikas were ready. Wasserman's assistant handed them to Jack. He cautioned the new owner, "Wait until you get home to try them out. You might have a good time by starting to organize your bookshelves."
Jack looked quizzically at him. "I don't have many printed books anymore..." He paused. "Oh, yeah. Gotcha. This is going to be fun."
Henrietta Reed pulled into the driveway. "Oh, good," she thought. "Jack's home." She'd been worried about his eye exam and was glad to see his car in the driveway. She got out of the car, reached back in for her laptop case, fumbled for her keys, and headed for the front door.
Henrietta had always loved this house. It was small, but it was theirs. On the porch, she had two flower boxes. In the winter, her beloved helleborus flowered white, just in time for the holidays, while the heaths and heathers added texture. In the summer sun, the variegated vinca vine draped over the edge of the boxes.
As she walked inside, the very first thing she saw was Jack. "Jack! Jack, wha... are you okay?"
Her husband was standing in front of the empty white wall on the left side of their living room. They'd always planned to find something just right for that wall, but, well, you know. Time gets away from you.
But there was Jack. His arms were flailing out and back. He was turning and bending and reaching... for nothing.
He didn't seem to be having a seizure. His expression was somewhere between intent and happy. But he was flinging around like he was possessed. It was very disconcerting.
Jack carefully placed the book he had chosen on the built-in bookcase and turned to Henrietta. The effect was marvelous. There was no seam whatsoever between the AR bookcase and his very real-life wife.
When he came home earlier that afternoon, he'd put his Gerikas on. It took just minutes for the Gerikas to connect to the cloud for the first time and start the bookcase tutorial. As soon as he looked around, Erika asked if he'd like a bookcase on the empty wall. He said yes, and his Gerikas created a built-in bookcase that was a perfect fit for his wall. It even matched his baseboards and crown moulding.
Of course, Jack's entire family Spindle ebook library wouldn't fit on the virtual bookcases, so he spent the afternoon having a grand time rearranging his library, picking and choosing the books he wanted to spotlight right in the front of the house.
As much as he enjoyed reading his Spindle collection on his phone or his Spindle Reader, he missed picking up a book, admiring the cover, reading the book jacket, and carefully placing the book where he wanted it in his collection. Now, for the first time, Jack was able to curate his digital collection as if they were real books. It was glorious.
From Jack's perspective, he was reaching up for books, leaning down to place some on the lower shelves, and sorting groups of books he wanted here from those he'd like to put somewhere else.
From Henrietta's perspective, she was walking in on her husband, who was acting like a lunatic -- bobbing, weaving, stooping, and reaching in the middle of thin air.
"Hi, Honey! I got my Gerikas," Jack replied enthusiastically. As he did so, he gestured dramatically at his just-completed bookcase. Of course, Henrietta couldn't see the bookcase, so she saw Jack gesturing dramatically at a blank wall.
"I picked up a prescription-free set for you," he continued. "I know you don't like the feel of glasses, but that's because you're not used to them. Just put these on and you can see what I see."
The Erika system enabled Jack to set sharing parameters for all of his AR constructs. Those sharing parameters would allow anyone he designated to see what he saw. Family members could be set to see those shares automatically, while those outside the family could choose to accept shared vision offers. The system even allowed Jack to set a "guest mode," so he could decide what books on his bookcase he wanted Gerika-wearing guests to see.
Henrietta squished up her nose in the way she did when she didn't approve. Usually, it was when Jack scrambled eggs with fish, or that time he jokingly poured barbecue sauce on his ice cream. She wasn't exactly excited about these glasses, but she had to admit that she'd grown used to turning on lights and setting timers with Erika, so this might have its uses.
As soon as she looked through the glasses, she saw the bookcase. It looked as if it had always been there. The resolution of the glasses was so good that it looked completely real. She realized what he'd been up to. He had been organizing the books by their jacket color, something Jack used to do with physical books back when they first got married.
It was an impressive effect, but she was not convinced. She said "Jack, that's incredible. But I don't want to wear glasses just to look at a fake bookcase." As Hudson's engineers expected, the non-bespectacled would be less inclined to adopt Gerikas right out of the gate. It's why they put in the extra effort to make Gerikas support prescription glass from day one.
"That's OK," said Jack. "As I discover more about what we can do, you might find them more interesting."
With that, Jack moved into the hallway. "Erika, create a bookcase here," said Jack. There was a small alcove that suddenly sprouted a bookcase. An animation showed the bookcase appear in a beam of light, almost like it arrived via a Star Trek transporter.
The next morning, when Jack got up, he started his morning ritual the same way he had for the last 25 years. He put on his glasses. He did his morning ablutions and then stumbled to the kitchen for coffee. As he walked down the hall and past the living room, he slightly altered his path from previous mornings so he wouldn't bump into the two new bookcases.
They looked so real that, before coffee, he'd forgotten he'd manifested them with Erika the night before. At that moment, they just seemed like normal furniture until... with only one sip of caffeine to power his brain, he tried to set his hot cup of coffee down on the top of the apparitional bookcase.
Jack didn't know it, but this sort of scene was being repeated nearly everywhere there was a Gerika user. Hudson quickly issued a software patch that made the top of a virtual object blink red if it looked as if a Gerika user was about to place a physical item on top of it. Oops.
A lot of lessons were learned in the early days.
Despite the morning spill, Jack continued to wear his Gerikas. They were, after all, his only glasses. Over time, he discovered more interesting uses. Erika would subtly suggest things she could do, and Jack started to rely on her augmented vision more and more.
Jack was an accomplished cook -- notwithstanding the fish with scrambled egg combos that Henrietta despised and Jack loved so much. When Jack made dinner, he liked to wait until his pan reached about 320 degrees before putting in a chicken breast. He found that caused the protein to start off with a satisfying sizzling sound. Cooking it for four minutes, when starting at that temperature, yielded a beautifully seared surface.
This time, as he was reaching for his trusty temperature probe, Erika asked, "Would you like a visual indicator of pan temperature?" Jack replied, "Yes," and the pan's surface changed to color rings. The inner circle was bright orange, while the outer rings progressed to a cooler blue. Then, pointers indicated that the inner portion was almost 300 degrees, while the outer was still at about 260.
Jack tried something. "Erika, just let me know when the pan hits 320." She replied, "OK," in her trademark tone. Three minutes later, he heard a beep, the pan's border turned bright orange, and the word "Ready" appeared in the center of the pan's surface.
Erika was able to see the recipe card Jack was using. As each new ingredient was needed, she highlighted its location in his kitchen. Apparently, her AI had been cataloging the items in his fridge and cabinets all along.
As he measured out ingredients, Erika placed an indicator and pinged when he poured out just the right amount. At one point, she noticed he was low on garlic powder and asked if he wanted her to order some more (from Hudson, naturally). He'd have a new bottle in two days, with free shipping, because he was a Supreme member.
The next day was a Sunday. Jack was in his garage cutting some 1x3 lumber to make a cabinet. He had 28 pieces to cut at exactly the same width. As he was measuring out the width, Erika asked, "Is there a distance you'd like me to mark?" Getting used to Erika's helpful intrusions, Jack answered, "Yeah, give me 13 7/8 inches."
Immediately, his lumber was marked with fine marks every 13 7/8 inches. He found he could pick up a board from his workbench and carry it to his miter saw, and the marks stayed precisely fixed. He actually set the stop block for the miter saw based on Erika's mark. Jack went on to cut all 28 pieces exactly to size.
As the weeks passed, Jack continued to try new things. He and his wife had long loathed the painted brick in their downstairs family room, but hadn't had the time, energy, or skill to resurface the brick. One day, Jack decided to ask Erika to do it.
"Erika, can you show me alternative brick surfaces for this wall?"
"Would you like to see an array of options, or one after the other?"
Erika proceeded to change the wall. First was a brick color that Jack thought had too much red. "Erika, that's got too much red." The next had too much yellow in it. "Erika, that's got too much yellow. Can I have more brown?"
And there it was. The wall was the exact brick style and tone Jack and Henrietta had always wanted. Changes like this could be persistent. From that day onward, whenever Jack was in the family room, the brick was the style he liked. It even changed with the lighting and TV flicker. Erika was designed so well that such changes were taken into account by her cloud servers and updated in real-time. There was no uncanny valley. It just worked.
To Jack, that wall would now and forever be the brownish-red brick he loved.
He did another experiment with a TV he had upstairs. He finally carved out time to watch one of his beloved superhero movies and wanted the full-on movie theatre effect. After sitting down in his favorite chair in front of his 42-inch TV, he asked, "Erika, can you put me in a movie theater?"
As was always the case with Erika, within seconds there was an "OK," and he was, to all appearances, inside a theater. There were even curtains behind his TV. Erika then asked, "Would you like me to make your screen bigger? I can make it proportionally appropriate for this venue."
As soon as Jack approved, the TV faded away to be replaced with a traditional movie screen. He was still able to control the TV from his remote, but as soon as the movie started playing, the lights in the theater dimmed. He was fully immersed in the experience, so much so that when the movie was over and he asked Erika to return his room to normal, it came as a bit of a shock to see his surroundings blink back to their original form.
Jack had always needed a distance prescription for his glasses. When looking at nearby objects, like the ingredient list on a package, he'd always had to take off his glasses to read. For the first few months of his Gerika use, he'd had the same problem. As he'd made more and more changes to the look of his surroundings, removing the Gerikas had become more and more jarring.
Then Hudson pushed a new update. Hudson was very active in issuing updates for the Erika glasses, making them more and more capable.
This time, the update added a major new feature: A virtual variable prescription. Now, whenever Jack looked at an object a few inches from his eyes, the Gerikas adjusted, and he was able to see perfectly.
Where, before, he'd had to remove his Gerikas every couple of hours to see something close, now that the Gerikas compensated for focal distance, he was able to keep them on from morning to night. Because the Erika glasses knew his eye parameters, they were able to adjust and digitally reconstruct what he was looking at, whether near or far, based on the unique requirements of his eyes.
Another update added virtual TV capabilities. No longer did he need a TV to watch TV. He was able to either enter movie theater mode or place a persistent virtual TV wherever he wanted. 5G networking meant he no longer needed either a cable box or a router, so his Gerikas worked just as well when he left home as when he was inside.
It took about a year, but when the old TV in the family room died, Jack convinced Henrietta to use Gerikas instead of installing a replacement TV. Although neither of them noticed it, the old TV remained in place for years, while Jack and Henrietta watched their virtual TV. The only difference was that Jack chose a more modern movie theater look for the room, while Henrietta purchased a classic Golden Age movie theater rendering from the Gerika app store.
Soon, Henrietta started using her Gerikas more and more. One of the first things she did was virtually redecorate the master bedroom with the pastel and floral designs she favored. Because she knew Jack wanted a completely different look for the room, she didn't share the design changes. Every time she walked into the room since the Gerika redesign, she sighed with contentment. The room looked just like she'd always dreamed it would -- and Jack also liked it because he saw the original design that he preferred.
As the years went by, Hudson engineers pushed more and more updates, some more controversial than others. Perhaps no update was more controversial than the body-look update.
With the body-look update, Gerika owners were able to alter their appearance. Initially, users were able to remove blemishes and -- with the most requested feature ever -- show themselves as being thinner than they really were.
Looks could be set with different sharing settings, and for different circumstances. Users could share looks to just family members, their friends list, or the world. Because AR glasses had begun overtaking smartphones in popularity, users who modified their looks and shared them to the world could pretty much count on everyone seeing their chosen, idealized body type.
Hudson also allowed people to make themselves look younger. Erika's AI had the ability to integrate a user's current appearance with younger images, and then present a perfectly optimized view of the user at a given age. Users could choose to present themselves in their actual clothing, or choose from a wide variety of virtual outfits sold by designers on the Gerika app store.
Exciting new apps were coming out all the time. Jack bought a number of apps, but the one he found most useful was the app that identified people as he went through his day. Jack tended to forget the names of people he'd known for years, and was even worse at remembering any salient details.
The app he used pulled from both public databases and his own social networks. As he went through his day, the app presented the names of people above their heads, and had indicators that showed if he had previously met them. The people with whom he had a high degree of interaction also had a sidebar of additional information, including when they'd last met, their family members and pet names, and their hobbies and interests.
Another favorite, especially in normally gray climates like the Pacific Northwest, was an app that would turn a gray day into a sunny day. Gerika users would see everything outside as it was, but instead with a blue sky, complete with a sun moving across it. Each object was re-rendered with the appropriate ray-tracing that would come from a sunny day.
This feature created a slew of unexpected tech support calls. Users who made such calls spoke to an AI that sounded perfectly human. Interestingly enough, behavioral scientists at Hudson, Giggle, and the other major tech companies discovered that users were more comfortable speaking to a tech support person with a slight foreign accent than one who had no accent. So, no matter what country you called from, the tech support voice had an accent from a different country.
The torrent of tech support calls always happened on inclement weather days. Gerika users who were used to being able to customize everything were upset that they couldn't turn off the rain or make the outside temperature warmer. The very patient and friendly AI repeated thousands upon thousands of times that while it was possible to see the world through blue-sky-colored glasses, they weren't yet able to control the actual weather.
Ten years passed since that eye exam when Jack got his first set of Gerikas. Henrietta's eyes finally reached the point where she needed prescription lenses. Instead of cutting new glass, the optometrist simply updated her Erika account and the glasses adjusted accordingly.
Nearly everyone on the planet used one pair of smart glasses or another. Some brands had more features and some had fewer, but all of them allowed the sharing of looks and views pioneered by the original Erika glasses.
As is always the case, the more a technology is adopted, the more universal it becomes, the more opportunities there are for trouble.
Porn vendors had started the first true Gerika firestorm. Although not allowed by Hudson directly, hackers had learned how to side-load apps onto Gerikas. Porn vendors came out with the ability to allow users to put looks on other people, so that if a user wanted another person to look like a celebrity or appear naked, it was possible to do so.
Even though the porn was only in the eye of the beholder, this type of hack angered a great many people. Many felt violated.
Soon, another hack came out to change the apparent race of other people, and another to change apparent gender. Other hacks followed, allowing users to place cartoon figures on people they disliked, or show the appearance of violence, or add other gruesome and disgusting attributes.
Consumer groups and advocates rallied to force the government to regulate AR services and use. The Big Five tech companies tried to explain that while they were actively working to block any reprehensible or hate behavior, it was an ever-escalating arms race against hackers.
A new Purist party formed whose purpose was to make AR illegal, eliminating smart glasses overall. While many people, including Henrietta, found some of the ideals of the Purists laudable, they found they could no longer part with their Gerikas.
In Henrietta's case, she'd not only come to rely on the custom focal features of the glasses that let her see clearly at any distance, but her entire living environment had changed since she and Jack got the glasses.
They hadn't done any physical decorating or painting. No new pictures had been hung. Those that had been hanging on the walls for years were dusty and askew. Of course, neither Jack nor Henrietta ever saw those off-kilter pictures, because Erika presented all the walls in the house in their idealized form.
On the few occasions when Gerika users had to take off the glasses, usually only during the once or twice yearly downtimes of the Erika system, the real world was a hugely disorienting shock. Psychologists called this effect "reality shock," and they found it applied to people who, for one reason or another, couldn't afford to keep paying 6G fees or to get a new pair of Gerikas if they broke.
Fortunately, the Erika outages usually lasted less than a minute, so Jack, Henrietta, and all the other Gerika users only had to withstand brief seconds of reality shock before they were able to get back to their augmented, idealized, beautiful-looking world.
In this way, the virtual AR world created by smart glasses mimicked the real world throughout history. Income inequality resulted in the world looking different to the better and worse off. The very poor saw the world as it truly was, and watched it become uglier and uglier as Gerika users abstained from any physical beautifying efforts.
Shortly after the first Gerikas came out, the government asked for a court order to allow them to see through a terror suspect's virtual eyes. Because Erika saw everything and cataloged everything in the real world in order to be able to re-render it for the virtual world, that data set proved irresistibly tempting to government investigators.
By the tenth anniversary of the release of the first Erika glasses, government case law had progressed quite far. The government mandated that Hudson and its competitors keep all Gerika-acquired data (which was everything everyone saw or heard) for a minimum of seven years. Investigators armed with court orders were allowed to paw through all that data, or even tap Gerikas live to see and hear everything persons of interest heard or saw.
Unfortunately, this was a boon to terrorists as well. Legislation passed that required the Big Five tech firms to leave open so-called "back doors" for government investigators. Before the first legitimate investigator was issued the first court order for Gerika-tapping, members of organized crime and terrorist organizations had hacked into the back doors and set up permanent camp.
Murders and terrorist acts became absurdly easy to pull off. Criminals were able to extinguish a life by making simple changes in how the world looked to any given individual. Early attacks were aimed at drivers. They were able to make a highway look like it went straight when, in fact, there was a tight curve coming up. The rise of automated vehicles overcame that particular attack, but, of course, the control systems of the vehicles themselves were hacked using the same government-mandated back doors.
Fake news became even more of a problem because everything people saw was AI-generated. Nothing that went on in real life was represented as real life. AI-based apps were able to change spoken words from public figures to match the ideology (or desired rage level) of the listener. Viral videos circulated showing events that never happened, but looked absolutely, forensically-defensibly real.
By this time, nothing was real. Each room in users' homes was Erika-generated. Friends, family, and even complete strangers looked nothing like they did in real life. They appeared buffer, younger, and healthier than they truly were. Paradoxically, this leveling of the looks curve resulted in a lower attraction rate among couples and potential mates, because everyone looked nearly perfect. Very few people looked interesting -- in the unique way each individual does -- anymore.
To combat the boredom that came from all that perfection, people started to adapt more unique avatars. Henrietta, for example, had long ago eschewed her human form. Instead, she adopted the avatar of a tiger. Jack hadn't seen Henrietta in her real form -- at least when the lights were on -- for years. He wasn't even sure he remembered what she looked like before the Gerikas.
A quarter of a century had gone by since the first Gerikas were produced. The world had weathered wars, political turmoil, and terrorist attacks. Cyberterrorists were constantly aiming their attention at the cloud farms that ran the altered reality everyone was fully absorbed in.
If Jack or any of the other millions of Gerika users thought about it, they might have wondered, "What is reality?" But to them, reality had simply, over time, become what they saw with their own two eyes, and what they saw was a world carefully constructed to meet their personal worldviews, ideologies, and whims.
The engineers who made Gerika and the other AR environments had grown sloppy. They, too, lived in worlds constructed to meet their idealized view of the world. While they had a healthy appreciation of the need for security, mistakes were made.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the network had been hacked years ago. Sleeper programs were hiding, waiting for just the right time. Even though backups, disaster recovery, and redundancy had been incorporated into the system, those very protections added complexity and new points of failure.
One cold day in November, the attacking resident AI found a series of failure points that, if they cascaded together, would render Erika unable to render environments for her users. Worse, it found a way to lock all of those modifications, views, and looks behind a deeply encrypted wall.
While Hudson would eventually recover, it wouldn't be for months.
Suddenly, the entire world was plunged back into reality. Spouses and friends had grown old without showing it. Homes had become run down and were in terrible disrepair because no one saw what needed to be done. Cities and towns were drab because nobody cared to add color and décor to a world they never saw.
Worse, people who had become toweringly competent in activities with the help of Erika were no longer able to perform simple tasks. People were no longer able to recognize each other because they'd never seen each other in real life. Everyone was a stranger and everyone was now, suddenly, in a strange land.
The fake world was gone, at least for a few months. Reality was a shock of such magnitude that many couldn't handle it. The suicide and murder rate skyrocketed.
When the crash came, Henrietta saw the barren and abandoned flower boxes of her once-prized helleborus and variegated vinca vine for the first time in nearly 20 years. She had stopped tending to them shortly after donning her Gerikas, all those years ago. She never realized it until now, but without her constant love and attention, she had left them to wither, dry up, and die.
As for Jack and Henrietta, they simply barricaded themselves inside their dilapidated home and sat there...waiting. No longer able to cook without help, no longer able to reach out and get food, no longer able to face reality, they just gave up.
When the AR system was recovered and everyone's world was restored, Jack and Henrietta were no longer part of that world. The AR world that Jack was so excited to enter did provide tremendous benefits. But for Jack and Henrietta, and thousands of others who could not face sustained reality shock, the only world was the fake world.
The real world was simply too much.
This has been a cautionary tale. Many technologies give us comfortable crutches so skills common to previous generations remain unlearned by most people. Few of us would survive in a world without electricity, for example.
Fully seamless glasses like Gerikas are many years in our future, and so is any scenario like that shown here. AR has enormous potential, but as we move toward that seamless integration, there needs to always be a clear separation between the artificially generated and the real. if not, the fake world we create may overcome reality, only to set us up for a future in which reality will then destroy our fake world.