The next next thing is augmented reality, or so the Silicon Valley investors are hoping and betting—but even the nascent medium's prime movers have little idea what everyday use of such a potentially distracting and disfiguring technology might yield. In today's story, Rich Larson reveals, in devastating detail, one such future of which we should be wary. Enjoy. -the ed
“The move’s been tough on her,” Molli’s father said. “So we thought, if there was a way, a non-invasive, non-chemical way to give her a little boost or to make her feel a little more at home, a little safer, we thought that might be good. She’s always got her Oggles on anyway. You know how kids are.”
“It’s just moving from a small town to a big city,” Molli’s mother said. “People are different, you know? They don’t smile at each other. They don’t stop and say hi. Everything’s a lot faster and dirtier and noisier. Me, I love it. I mean, the pace of it. The energy. I was born in NYC, you know? New York. But Molli’s never experienced that, and the adjustment is hard. She had a little, a panic attack? I guess you’d call it? The other week. So the anxiety filter will be good for her.”
Molli said nothing, so none of the grown-ups noticed when she slipped out the door. Her new house was an apartment in a big gray block of concrete and her new yard was a park across the street with withered yellow grass and an oily plastic playground. As she walked there she pulled her Oggles up from around her neck -- they were pale pink, because that had been her favorite color when her parents bought them for her, and she still liked them but secretly wished they were forest green, her new favorite color. She nestled her matching earbuds into place.
The Oggles blinked to life. She closed the digital dollhouse she’d been playing in earlier, giving her an unobstructed view of the park. The sky was gray, but not the steely stormy gray she’d loved back home, dotted with gulls and petrels wheeling out over the ocean. It was thick and hazy with gasoline fumes from all the noisy trucks and with smoke from the forest fires up north. Hardly anything was green or growing. The sidewalk was strewn with bits of blown trash. In the distance there was a screech and a honking horn and a mad voice.
She flipped the anxiety filter, and everything changed. The sky turned a cheerful blue with fluffy white clouds and a bright yellow sun. The park was covered with lush green grass she could nearly smell; the sidewalk sprouted moss instead of garbage. She could still hear the distant shouting, but it was distorted, softened, sing-song, more like a warbling bird than an angry person.
For a while it was nice, playing on the now-shiny playground with digital squirrels scampering around her and the traffic noises replaced by the familiar percussion of waves and crying seabirds. But before long she got a queasy feeling in her stomach. Maybe because the ocean sounds were making her homesick. Maybe because she knew that it was all very fake and nowhere near as good as the real things they’d left behind.
A man sauntered past, and he had a big pixelated smile like a cartoon instead of the usual frown people wore here. Molli didn’t like that at all.
She flipped the anxiety filter off again. The sky turned gray again, and the park’s grass went back to dull yellow. But it was real, and it felt easier to grip the climbing frame hard now that the bars weren’t all sparkly clean. She heard the neighbor’s dog barking, which wasn’t a bad sound, not really. It wasn’t something that made her feel anxious.
She found a bunch of paintings on the wall of the park’s bathroom that the filter had covered up. Some of them were just words she didn’t know, done in big bubbly capital letters, but some were faces or intricate designs. There was a swirly one with forest green vines, or else tentacles, all tangled up in a barbed wire fence like the one around her grandparents’ farm. She liked that one a lot and snapped a picture with her Oggles.
Two boys asked her to play tag with them, and she did it even though they were a little younger than her. They asked for her name and she said Molli, instead of saying Molli from New Brunswick how the teacher had called her at school. One of them had the same Oggles she did, but yellow.
Her parents could see where she was on their map, and her dad chatted her that there was dessert but it was tapioca pudding, not chocolate, so she kept playing until she saw her mom’s new co-worker and her wife leaving the apartment block. They waved; she waved back, which meant people did wave to each other in the big city.
The sky was getting dark, so Molli headed back inside, not feeling anxious at all. The city wasn’t so bad. It was even kind of exciting, how her mom kept saying, with the rushing cars and rushing people. Her Oggles reminded her of the door code and she thumbed it in.
Her parents’ voices in a familiar cadence, staccato and sharp like knives. Molli froze in the entryway. The pit of her stomach sloshed cold. She didn’t want to shake. She hated shaking. But she could feel it coming, feel her hands and arms and her whole body start to tremble. Her heart sped up.
“At least we had a house,” Molli’s dad growled. “At least we had friends. We had family.”
“You were entry level,” Molli’s mom snapped. “It was going nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. And living with your parents always hovering over my fucking shoulder, you think that was easy for me? You think I liked that?”
Molli didn’t want to have a panic attack. She didn’t want another thing that would make her mom cry and smoke and her dad sulk and pace. Her chest heaved.
She flipped the filter and stepped inside, peering around the kitchen wall to see the goofy digital smile retouching her dad’s red-mad face, listening to the muted sing-song of her mom’s cursing. It wasn’t so bad.
Molli crept off to her room before they could notice her.