Living Outside
Episode 01: Joy Ride


"We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before."
-John Perry Barlow

Somewhere In The Physical World

Mike twitched his finger and the hideous, many-fanged beast was kicked into pieces. He took its hide as loot and continued through the dense forest, heedless of its incredible danger. Mike's renewed obsession with Ultra-Epic Crash Forest - a classic, single-player rpg - had been chewing up huge chunks of his time. He was trying not to let it hinder his social life. Even as he mentally occupied an alien fantasy world, his car made its way to his friend Sam's party. Luckily for Mike (and public safety), driving was something people didn't have to do anymore.

The game filled the space between him and the dashboard. Like most modern cars, its manual control was a joystick on the driver's right side. This was great for Mike, since he had more space for his game. The action happened at just below chest level, with the forest environment appearing throughout his car to create ambiance. He had made transparent the forest extending up into his line of sight to the road in front of him. Automated driving was far safer than the best human driving, but accidents still happened. And while advanced safety features made fatalities even rarer than crashes, an extra pair of eyes on the road made Mike more comfortable.

He attacked a group of infernal mushrooms. He leapt over one and punched into its center. This killed it, but caused it to release a plume of toxic spores. He had forgotten about those, but his character was able to shrug the spores' disorienting effect off. He cut the next one down by kicking its stem, avoiding the spore reaction. The game required an unusual amount of precision when controlling a character, whether for combat, alchemy, or solving puzzles. This precision is what still drew hardcore players to the decades old Korean game.

The game's visuals surrounded him by means of his augmentive contact lenses, which added photo-realistic, real-time overlays onto his vision. Augmentive visual technology in the form of contacts, glasses, or implants had been nearly perfected. Mike's contacts could change his vision into anything a human eye could see, in whatever detail and scope was appropriate.

The game's rich sounds, mixed with Mike's high energy music playlist, were provided by his ear inserts. Like his contacts, they were designed to be comfortably worn at all times. They produced the highest quality omni-directional sound the human ear could hear, from whatever digital sources Mike chose. They further served as auditory filters, selectively controlling the volume of environmental sounds. This helped prevent damage from loud noises, useful for Mike's love of loud concerts. It saved his eardrums while bringing clarity to the music. And if the concert was boring, they enabled him to bring out specific human voices to carry on a relatively normal conversation in even the loudest settings.

Mike was experienced in parallel processing, also known as the joy of self-distraction. In addition to his photo-realistic fantasy world, he had augmented his vision in the following ways:

Distracted as he was, Mike still had no trouble noticing when a man wearing a very nice business suit jumped out fifty feet in front of his car. Mike did his best to ignore the man's wildly waving arms and pantomimed terror. The car hit the man and tossed him up in the air. He fell through the roof into the car's passenger seat. Mike did his best to feign outrage at these antics.

MikeEvery damn time! What the hell, man? ThomasWas I supposed to run up alongside the car and get in through the door? That's just crazy.

Thomas switched his clothes to sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. He was sitting in the car via virtual telepresence. Mike could see Thomas with his digital contact lenses and hear him with his ear pieces. With his haptic clothing, Mike could touch Thomas as well, although his haptics were less convincing than his audiovisual augmentation. But short of trying to touch Thomas, Mike would not have been able to tell the difference between Thomas being there physically and being there by virtual proxy.

ThomasGoing to a party! Woo! Who's going to be there? MikeWhy don't you go check? And then stay. ThomasThis is the preparty. Only the cool kids. MikeMy car is the preparty? I'm playing a game here. ThomasYawn. That thing's ancient.

Thomas splashed dozens of digital ants onto Mike's central gaming area. They couldn't interact with the game directly, but they crawled on top of, beneath, and through it, obscuring Mike's view. With a few quick flicks of his fingers, Mike filtered the layer of ants from his sight and turned off Thomas' access to the car's interior cameras and the cameras in Mike's clothing. Mike then flipped Thomas off.

MikeIt's too bad you can't see this, because I'm doing it as hard as I can.

Thomas' physical body was hundreds of miles away in a different city. But thanks to his fully-immersive neural implants, his presence in the car was as real to him as he wanted it to be. Mike could use his non-implant tech to project himself in a similar way, making his sight and hearing correspond to those of a simulated projection in another physical or virtual place. But non-implant simulations of touch and sense of movement were less compelling, and he had no gear to simulate taste or scent. Mike's tech could immerse him quickly and convincingly into a new location so that he could forget about his physical body and be mentally projected into a new one. But Thomas' brain implants, a package affectionately known as "the Plant," could cut off his body's senses at will and replace them with his proxy's in a much more realistic and satisfying way.

Thomas could feel the car accelerate to an increased speed limit. He felt the plush passenger seat. He heard (but couldn't see) Mike muttering as his character ran away from some monster he shouldn't have messed with, as well as the angry wails from the monster. He felt the vibrations and bumps of the road. He felt the breeze of the air conditioner on his face. He smelled the aroma of fast food, a smell he quickly filtered away. He could hear and see Mike's junk food wrappers crinkle as he crushed them under his feet, before he removed them from the virtual representation of Mike's car that he inhabited.

Cut off from interior cameras, Thomas made a 30 second loop of the car's prior visual interior recording so he wouldn't be stuck with a static image. Mike's image played back, silently mouthing echoed words from their brief conversation. T, as he was commonly called, set up a news feed over the glove box and sneaked a brief peak through a window into Sam's party to see who was already there. He had been invited, so he had access to the cameras in her house. His access had been logged, not that anyone cared. He took a look outside the car. He could still use the car's exterior cameras (supplemented by the public highway sensors) to see the traffic and environment around the car. For just a moment he removed the car from his simulation and felt the cold wind whipping around him as he went speeding along, a few feet above the ground, at 80 m.p.h. It was unnerving. He brought the car back.

ThomasHey, I'm gonna go hang out on the roof. MikeKnock yourself out.
Ghost Riding On The Freeway

Thomas hopped up and sat on the roof. With the advent and maturation of truly immersive telepresence, anyone could be anywhere in the world instantly. That is, provided sufficient tech on both ends. For a virtual proxy, cars were mostly useful for socializing with the physical people trapped inside, or for thrill rides. Thrill rides could be idle fun or abject terror, depending on the level of realism selected by the user. Trying to hold onto a speeding car's roof for dear life was always an adrenaline rush for T, no matter how many times he had harmlessly bounced off of the pavement into incoming traffic.

Simulating vision and hearing for a proxy's user was easy. Mike could get a convincing audiovisual experience with just his ear set and contacts. His clothing could also generate tension and some sensation of touch, including some basic textures. But it was a pale imitation of Thomas' experience. To convincingly replicate smell, taste, touch, balance, acceleration, and other subtle senses required more invasive implants. The Plant worked with the brain's sensory nerves, and was able to stimulate, record, or inhibit them at the user's will. Specifically, it cyberized the 12 cranial nerves and sections of the spinal cord, the brain's natural input/output system. Thomas could cut off most of his body's natural input, with appropriate safety protocols in place, and replace his natural senses with the simulated input from his proxy. He could instantly project himself to a huge and increasing number of cities and nature sites all over Earth, and a vast multitude of simulated worlds and spaces with various levels of divorce from the physical world.

Realistic simulation was assured by massive amounts of aggregate sensory data collected from the individual's own experience, which was commonly recorded and played back with exacting replication, but also using volunteered data from millions of other users' sensory implants. T's proxy could precisely replicate the nerve signals generated by any given experience and send those signals down their corresponding pathways. Whether it was shag carpeting, human flesh, cranberry tart, stubbing a toe, a nasty dust storm, or the warmth of a sunset, the simulated experience provided by T's Plant was rarely distinguishable from the real thing. There were still deficits. Experiences of all kinds left little somethings to be desired. Improvements in the verisimilitude of proxy experiences were constant, due to the incredible effort by users all over the planet. It was a supreme victory of open source programming.

T sat on top of the roof of the car, feeling the cold, hard wind, which was estimated by the speed and direction of the car and highway sensors registering the local wind. It was invigorating, but quickly grew unpleasant, so T slowed it down to a cool breeze. He didn't have to worry about falling off, but it was still a rush to be doing something that would have so flagrantly violated social convention before proxies.

Thomas looked around for other ghost-riders. Many proxies riding in cars for long enough would eventually jump on top. It was a hard impulse to resist. T had little interest in most of the proxies he saw moving past until he spotted three women having a great time on a van coming the opposite way. He waved and they waved back. One of the women jumped over to sit beside T. She had dreadlocks and wore a flowing dress made of ornate, miniature roofing tiles that shimmered with just about every possible color. She was anime style, specifically early Miyazaki, with just a touch of Pixar. A tag indicated her name was Lain, but she could have just been making that up. Not that it mattered.

LainHeyo! You following CyFrenia? ThomasI'm more into Ataraxia. LainThat's good too. But CyFrenia is getting really intense right now. You might check it out. We need all the help we can get.

She was trying to recruit him! Player poaching was good for competition, so T didn't mind, but he was too into Ataraxia to switch. CyFrenia and Ataraxia were both massively multi-user collaborative art projects/gaming worlds. CyFrenia had broken off of Ataraxia years ago, but both had independently taken a recent turn into large-scale violent conflict.

T pulled up a quick compatibility report for Lain. It showed nice concurrence for politics and fandom interests, which is probably why she jumped over. He noted that her sexual profile was unavailable, a sign of good taste when riding on a car in public view. She was automatically logged away as one of T's thousands of potential contacts.

The compatibility reports were generated by T's Social Interface System, or "SIS". It was also affectionately called "little sister" by some, a snarky reference to its snoopy behavior. SIS was an open source social enhancement standard, comprising numerous such programs which worked together to (typically) good effect. SIS greatly expedited social networking. T's "little sister," at that moment, was silently noting his and Lain's shared interest in obscure virtual worlds, music, classic TV shows, and topics of history. T had set his SIS interface so that its suggested topics popped up as unobtrusive text bubbles around Lain's head. He noticed an interesting one.

ThomasYou've an actual fan of Twin Peaks? LainYeah, totally. You too huh? It's so hard to get people to watch it! Too slow paced, I suppose. ThomasHave you been to the "Damn Good Coffee" remix world? *link* It's a continuing effort to set up a real time 3D representation of the Twin Peaks time line. You can wander around anywhere and it gives you cues when events from the show are happening. It's a nicely realized project so far. It sounds like it would be mostly boring, but the atmosphere is so authentic and player content is something else. The Black and White Lodges are worth it alone.

Lain's eyes turned big and sparkled.

LainWoh, that sounds awesome. ThomasIf you get through the whole thing it gives you a wicked theme complete with ambient music, color schemes, and lots of little subtle touches. Like, occasionally it makes people sound like they're doing that backwards speech thing. It's one of those achievement awards, or I'd give it to you. I'm trying to be good about that stuff. LainOh, yeah. I mean, what's the point if you're not going to honor the integrity of an art community. I'll definitely check that out. ThomasYou been to Indra's Net? Via Omni or whatever. LainOh, that's one of the bigger spirals, right? No, but I've heard a lot of good things. ThomasI'll show you around sometime if you want.

Lain smiled flirtatiously.

LainOoh, that sounds like fun. I'll send you a text sometime. If I remember to remember, that is.

They talked for a few more minutes before Lain had to vanish. She seemed nice enough, though T would probably never talk to her again.

The Future Of Travel

T made the roof transparent so he could see the loop he made of Mike.

ThomasIf you unblind me, I'll come back inside. MikeHmm.... I'd make you promise to behave, but what's the point. Alright.

T dropped back into his seat. Mike had indeed restored his in-car camera access.

MikeHave a nice time up there chatting with strange women? ThomasI'm pretty sure I was the strange one. MikeIsn't talking to random people all the time annoying? ThomasThey're easy to filter if they get on my nerves. And most of them are nice people. You just have to give them a chance. MikeI know too many people already.

Mike slapped T across (and through) his virtual chest. Mike's clothes gave him some sufficiently satisfying resistance on the blow's contact. Thomas, on the other hand, felt most of the force of the blow and a quick, wincing pain. It's easy enough for a proxy to turn off uncomfortable sensations, but most people just put a cap on unpleasant sensations. T had found that some amount of discomfort was useful for authenticity and variety. There was also a hard limit built into the Plant on sensations like pain and heat. Plant limits protected users from excessive pain in their physical bodies too, and gave them the ability to greatly mute it. Pain warnings were necessary for sickness or injury, but once you knew you had a broken bone or a kidney stone, it was nice to at least tone down the torture.

Once pain and other "unpleasant" sensations could be cut off at will, many users lost their resistance to their presence. Pain, sharp pressure, stenches of all kind, and every other malady of the human body became just tools to create more authentic, richer experiences in the natural and virtual world. Although, like spices, unpleasant things were generally enjoyed sparingly.

ThomasThat hurt, you know. MikeYep. ThomasHmm...

Mike's fingers twitched and drew small shapes into his thighs directing his monk to slay giant mutant crawfish in an underwater temple in a soggy part of Crash Forest. Mike had never stopped playing his game since T's arrival, which T took as a challenge. A sheet of paper appeared in Thomas' right hand, and a box of crayons in his left. He dumped the crayons out and they floated in the air as he drew an adventurer, complete with whip and fedora. The figure peeled itself off of the page, puffed into 3D and began using his whip to swing around the car. Thomas drew a tiger and it began clawing up the sides of the car, trying to get at the adventurer.

A 2 foot serpent, a moping giant robot, a frantic UFO, several small armies of opposing zombie penguins, and a handful of Lovecraftian critters later, the car was on the verge of madness. An epic battle was taking place in the back seat where the orange penguin army had established a fort protecting a belt buckle and were desperately flinging their explosive eggs at a tentacled behemoth. Penguin swarms clashed against each other and sloshed up against all four doors and seats, trying to reach higher ground. The giant robot soon took care of the Old Ones. They were no match for its rocket beam.

Thomas picked up one of the penguins and squeezed it. It stung a little as it popped and splashed purple junk all over his hand. He licked it off. Grape jam. The penguins, rapidly multiplying by unspeakable means, began an assault on Mike's lap, which was being ferociously guarded by the tiger. The adventurer had been abducted by the UFO, which was exchanging fire with the Giant Robot, which was strategically standing on Mike's right shoulder. Mike had not reacted to any of this, meaning that he had probably filtered out Thomas' manic crayon layer. Usually he would attempt to purge his car from T's invasion in kind, but he was too wrapped up in his game. Disappointed, Thomas began an invasion of Mike's rpg layer, which had been strangely left open to T. But it was the proverbial loose rope.

MikeLittle brother, I will eject you from the car.

This was not an idle threat. Thomas sighed as he deleted his crayonegeddon. He was looking through his bag of tricks for other, lesser annoyances to test Mike's limits when wind chimes echoed distantly. Someone was calling.

MikeOh, it's Sam.

Mike flicked a finger and Sam's head appeared centrally on the dashboard, facing him. Thomas quickly transformed his face.

Mike & ThomasHey Sam! SamHey Mike... and uh... oh, T. Did you change your complexion or something? ThomasActually, I'm trying a new nose, higher cheek bones, and some artful asymmetry. Oh, and the dragon eyes. And the fox ears. SamRight... has he driven you insane yet Mike? MikeNot yet, but he's well on the way. SamWell, the party is happening as we speak. Everyone's watching CyFrenia highlights right now, but that should be over soon. ThomasWho's winning? SamDon't you already know that? ThomasWho cares? SamSo Mike, we need more beer. Could you get some on the way? MikeWhy always me? SamCause you're always late. And you're too sweet for your own good. Ja ne!

Sam's head disappeared. The car was already being diverted off the highway.

ThomasAlways with the beer. It's so inefficient. MikeAnyway, Sam's looking pretty good. What's with you two? ThomasSam is cute, but lives too much in her head for me. MikeUnlike you? ThomasHey, I live Outside.

See my Tech Notes for more details on how the technology in this story might be implemented.
See Related Tech Links for tons of fun stuff.

(Originally posted on 6/22/2010 on