As they were exiting the freeway, Mike checked his grocery list and added beer. The list was largely composed of items automatically added by the sensors in his refrigerator and pantry. Though in a hurry to the party, he decided to pick up a few other items beside the beer. Selecting the things he needed from his list, he did an instant price check among stores in the area. Mike examined their itemized lists, which included prices for various brand options. It showed that NumNums offered the best overall price for the items he wanted, even with one of the other stores offering a special on Mike's favorite peanut butter. If he only bought the specified items, he would always know the exact price beforehand.
He directed the car to NumNums. It parked in the closest available space to the store. Mike took his cloth bags out of the trunk. The store had bags, but Mike had developed the habit of always bringing his own. With the advent of automated checkout, customers generally bagged items as they put them into their carts. Mike donned a virtual fedora, threw his bags into a cart, and pushed it into the NumNums.
Out of courtesy to the other customers, Mike stopped playing his game while at the store, but for continuity of ambiance he gave the store a jungle motif. The game's assortment of flowers, leaves, and fungi hung from the ceiling and sprouted from the floor. Mike's pushed a vine aside with his cart as he ventured into the jungle/grocery.
Thomas hovered beside him, sitting cross-legged on a large cushion, his head level with Mike's. He set his proxy to stay to either side of Mike, depending on obstacles. T appeared on one of Mike's private virtual layers, using the cameras and sensors stylishly hidden in Mike's clothing to paint T's virtual environment. Mike's high definition cameras appeared as small buttons on his clothing, mostly in his jacket. The audio, scent, and other sensors were invisibly interwoven with the circuitry of his clothing, along with infrared lasers, terahertz cameras, and a radar system which collectively determined distances and surface textures precisely enough for common use, such as painting convincing and detailed virtual environments for augmented reality functions, and for visiting proxies to experience Mike's physical location as if they were really there.
T also used the store's camera system to see parts of the store not in Mike's line-of-sight, although this feed edited out all of the people (with their carts and bags) for privacy reasons. Many stores provided these cameras as a service to aid their customers' augmented reality functions. A lack of public feed cams might also hamper the proxies which often accompanied customers.
Mike filtered away the in-store music and made it sound like the store was playing a live feed of a concert Crain Slain was giving at that moment.
Remembering that he was already late for the party, Mike brought his grocery list up. It included a map of the store which popped up when he looked at his right forearm. A window like this could be set to appear in some fixed portion of a user's vision no matter where they look in relation to their environment or body. That can be useful for critical information like nearby game enemies, but might get annoying for something like a store map. The window, when eye tracking activated it, displayed a map of the store with the most efficient shopping path indicated by an arrowed line weaving through the aisles. His items were marked on the map with small blinking lights. Mike's guidance system was set to overlay hovering, unobtrusive arrows a few inches off of the ground in front of him, so he didn't have to constantly check the map.
Flowery vines swept aside as he turned down the next aisle. A blinking blue outline indicated his preferred peanut butter brand. He considered getting the cheaper generic brand, but upon querying it, his grocery program told him that he regretted getting that particular generic peanut butter the last time. He picked up the brand name peanut butter and put it in a bag. It was automatically marked as acquired on his list.
Floating beside Mike, Thomas grabbed a deep fried donut from thin air and chomped it down. It was a copy of a donut he had once eaten at a county fair, soon after he was first Planted. He had been lucky enough to be recording his senses when he ate it. It was the most delicious donut he had ever eaten, so he used the recorded smell, taste, and texture to create a virtual duplicate. Now he ate a shameful number of them everyday, with random variance in flavor, temperature and texture to lower habituation.
For T, it was a perfect experience. It didn't have calories and didn't even make a mess unless he wanted it to. Which he did, but the crumbs and grease vaporized into the ether soon after consumption. By themselves, virtual donuts weren't as satisfying as physical ones. That would have required simulating his stomach's reaction, creating a spike in blood sugar, and other tricky things. But full immersion proxy users found that having their physical bodies eat vegetables and other healthy food could "simulate" some of those things for them. While T's physical body almost always ate healthy, his mind, via proxy, delighted in donuts, pizza, chocolate cheesecake, and various forms of cheese at all times of the day.
Seeking an open space, T floated above the aisles and toward the produce section on the other side of the NumNums. Behind him stretched a darkening string which attached to Mike when T set his auto-follow on him. Straying proxies often used such strings to keep a tab on the direction and distance from a set point. A rhythmic pluck of the string retracted proxies back to their target. T didn't need it, so he cut it. He then set up a timing algorithm to determine how long he had until Mike finished his shopping route, to shape the scope of his escapades. It showed less than four minutes, but Mike had a way of getting distracted.
No longer needing his body, T changed his proxy to a floating green sphere the size of an orange. For a full view of his environment, he expanded his vision to completely surround him, 360 degrees in every direction, oriented centrally at the core of the sphere. This gave no sense of backwards or forwards, up or down.
T was inhabiting a layer he had created from Mike and the store's sensors, which he had made publicly available. Anyone could add this layer to their own augmented or virtual representation of the store. That is, if for some reason they wanted to interact with T's sphere or view Mike's jungle motif. Most people, of course, were unaware of the "T's Funtastic NumNums Experience-orama" layer option, as they were there to shop.
T's sphere proxy was almost completely audiovisual, with only a tactile sense of acceleration and deceleration to give feeling of motion, more for fun than anything. Even his sense of gravity had been removed. T's proxy had the appearance of a sphere for the benefit of others, but only as a reference point, an indicator of where T's senses were located. The ball was set to bounce off of surfaces, but people trying to touch it would phase through it like a hologram.
At this point, Thomas was no longer receiving tactile signals from his proxy for his brain to interpret as a body. His first experiences with being incorporeal years ago had been disorienting, but now he was used to it. Luckily, brains are wonderfully adaptive, able to "inhabit" an insubstantial orb and acclimate to drastically reduced tactile senses. But while they were reduced, there was still the faint background sense of his resting physical body, particularly his breathing. While receiving physical signals from a proxy, T wouldn't have been able to detect this faint outline unless something went wrong with his physical body. Even without a tactile proxy, the outline of his body rapidly disappeared from his consciousness, leaving him with the restricted sense input he desired.
T found removing the distractions of his body a great way to focus on getting things done. Like playing games. But first, T just had to bounce around the store. He turned his sphere invisible by removing his ball proxy from his layer so it wouldn't bother anyone who had adopted his layer. T had a decent enough SIS reputation that many people's defaults opted into seeing and interacting with his virtual presence, and he didn't want to annoy any potential fans.
He accelerated at murderous speed toward the ceiling; bounced off it and into the dairy section; ricocheted off a customer near Mike; zigzagged down several aisles at up to 200 mph; smacked off another customer carrying his layer; and flew out of the exit and off of a car in the parking lot before returning inside. T savored the freedom and exhilaration of unrestrained movement. He could effortlessly and instantly be anywhere in the store, or most of the civilized world, without the hindrance of even a simulated form, excepting for some places which required a visual proxy with limited movement for security reasons.
Having settled into his new form, T shot over to the produce section. He could have teleported there, which probably wouldn't have been too disorienting. But even when blazing fast, contiguous movement established context of location, which helped enable more compelling immersion. Arriving in the produce section, T found that someone there was publicly broadcasting their own environmental sensory feed, which allowed him to paint the people present into his virtual produce section, at least those who opted-in to be captured by the sensors. Mike often let his sensors paint everyone for T's amusement, but including people who didn't opt-in to a more public feed was considered rude. T hovered exactly 3 meters above the ground, giving him the perfect vantage point for his game. He brought the game interface up.
Thomas started by setting up a new public layer for the game, on which he made his proxy visible. Anyone with sufficient gear could watch, or even participate in his game, although everyone looked too busy shopping. Their loss. He set the produce section's long refrigerated section, and the orange pile near its end, as the boundaries of the game. He set the oranges as the end goal and rearranged them in his layer to make the pile taller. Once the boundaries were set, the game randomly generated dozens of enemies based on the available space, obstacles, alloted time, and T's previously displayed skill level. This time, the 2-inch tall enemy set was mostly small ogres, with some gelatinous cubes, winged skulls, pirates, and other critters for variety.
The game was called Hyper Grind. It was essentially an accelerated RPG. Instead of a health meter there was only a strength level. Getting close enough to one or more monsters initiated the player's character into a struggle with them, which it won if its strength was greater than the strength of the combined enemy force against it. Success made you stronger, but fighting a stronger opponent would result in your death and a reset of the level. Depending on the enemies in your area, you might be able to sneak by them, or you might have to fight several at once. The main strategy came in choosing the optimal path to collect enough strength to reach the goal alive. T enjoyed its flow.
In addition to engaging enemies directly, players could use their character's chain hook to grab objects and whip them at monsters. A successful hit temporarily lowered affected monsters' strength, allowing the player to defeat more powerful opponents. The winning condition was reaching the goal, but blocking the goal was the most powerful set of monsters. The game was scored largely based on the player's efficiency.
It was essentially a sophisticated, dynamic puzzle game. T had been practicing with the thought of maybe entering a Hyper Grind tournament. Not that he'd win. Top contenders were scary.
T named his character "Strider" and set about demolishing the monstrous horde. Strider beat a few of the weaker enemies and then began maneuvering around a patch of stronger ogres. An ogre got too close, so T shot Strider's hook into a cucumber in the bins overhead and brought it smashing down on the monster, stunning it long enough for him to squeak by.
Strider engaged with a pirate just below his level. He would win the struggle, but it would take 2 or 3 seconds. In the meantime, he was being surrounded by 5 lower level creatures. It would have been a problem, except for T's skill with the hook. In a fraction of a second, T hooked a jalapeño, whipped it into two ogres beneath Strider, knocking them back and temporarily lowering their strength level. In the same second he sent a bell pepper precisely between two killer squids coming from above, giving him the space he needed to begin working on one of the weaker ogres.
The produce section was rich with ammo; outside of tournament regulations in fact. It was good hook practice though. Aiming with the hook was not automatic under T's settings. It required exact precision and used a generally realistic physics engine to accurately simulate the throwing of objects. T could have effectively used his proxy's hands to command the hook. In that case, his brain would send commands to his hands which would be intercepted by his spinal cord Plant and translated into hand movements in his virtual proxy. These movements could have further been processed into abstract instructions depending on context. For example, a mapping of finger movement to the 3D coordinates of the game.
Controlling an anthropic proxy with his natural body movements this way was the best way to control a proxy overall. It was the most natural, the brain was designed and trained for it, and it was the most immediately immersive way to do it. But for matters of precision and speed like Hyper Grind, T relied on his Universal Remote Control, or URC, a motor cortex implant with flexible and powerful controls for virtual environments or electronics. It bestowed incredibly intuitive and powerful controls directly from the brain. With T's experience, using it to paint or manipulate complex game spaces was effortless and second-nature. T focused on the larger strategy of the game as he flung veggie after veggie with laser precision into their tiny targets.
T had a minute of gaming bliss, and was a quarter of the way through the level, before he noticed that someone else was playing too, and rapidly catching up with him. Enemies respawned after 30 seconds to keep players moving, and the new player was going through them nearly twice as fast as Strider had. The player's handle was Rabid Weasel, and they had been given a large handicap to balance T's expert skill. Even considering the handicap, Rabid wasn't a bad player.
T played as fast as he could, but was losing ground. He scanned around for likely players. While he had a complete general view of the area with his surround vision, he still had to pay attention to something for it to come into focus and for his brain to properly process its details. The player was easy to spot. It was a young girl, maybe eight, with unnaturally red hair, watching her character thrashing some zombie geckos. She wore augmented reality glasses, what looked like a trainer set. At least that was the form his challenger had chosen when they began playing the game, but T had no way to confirm this. Children were typically filtered out of all public feeds for obvious safety issues, but her parents might have allowed her settings to represent her accurately.
T set up a blinking blue light on his sphere in her direction to say hello. She noticed out of the corner of her eye and shot him a split second grin. For a few seconds, when her character was moving through a cleared path, her hands came up in front of her as if holding a basketball, and her fingers glided around it as if lightly pushing keys. She was using a beginner's keysphere visualization to guide her fingers while entering text.
The girl finished typing with her keysphere, closed her right hand as if crushing a paper, and mimed tossing it at T's sphere, all while continuing to play the game. It was a text message.
T had no response to this, except to play harder. Soon Rabid Weasel had almost caught up with Strider. With T's settings, players couldn't directly attack each other, but they could throw things to hit enemies into other players, which is exactly what the Weasel started doing. She masterfully pulled a tofu package off of the highest shelf, hitting one of the dreaded poison skull walkers near Strider, all using simple camera tracked hand commands as a virtual 3D mouse. The girl laughed as T was forced to retreat.