This is a short science-fiction story about Augmented Reality. It was first published in the February 2015 edition of TechSmart magazine.
It’s summer in Cape Town and the sky above me is a clock. Its dome is etched with geometric golden filigree, and black hands arch down to gothic numerals that rise up between the hills on the horizon. The small hand is pointing at Devil’s Peak, which means it’s approaching six. Only a few more minutes of jogging before I have to go home and start making a supper of Low-Carbonara.
The flowers on the common are blooming so I set my Goggles to the ultraviolet spectrum. It's the way they were meant to be seen: They evolved to attract insects that see in UV, according to an info bubble I walked past once. It's true, though. They have patterns and colours that are completely invisible to the naked eye. Not that there are many of those around any more.
I stop at the edge of the grass to stretch out, and watch a couple of other joggers running past. Their public information hovers over them: A designer and an artisan baker, salaries in the hundred thousand plus bracket. Libertarian trance fans too, apparently. I wave at them and they ignore me. Must have their social settings turned off.
As I stare at their departing backs I hear a growl behind me. I turn to look, and my throat constricts. There’s a creature crossing the street. Clawed legs and a slick black shell. It has a double row of teeth and mucus runs from its carapace.
It’s an overlay. My anti-mugging app is warning me that someone without goggles is coming. People without goggles can’t be tracked, and so can’t be trusted. My Goggles have been programmed with my personal phobias and they're giving me the shot of adrenaline that I need to run from someone dangerous.
Which is exactly what I’m about to do when the monster reaches out a claw.
“I’m sorry,” I say, backing away. I force myself to remember that there’s a human under the image, and put on a smile. “I can’t understand you.”
It waves its claw at me again. As I recoil, I see something glistening in its palm.
“Wazz? Hap. Gob. Bruk,” it growls pitifully.
It’s holding a cracked set of Goggles.
I still can’t understand it, and I don’t know why. My Goggles are meant to auto-translate the top hundred languages. I haven't had trouble understanding anyone in a decade.
“Hap,” the creature says again. Its compound eyes glisten with tears.
“Help?” I say. It nods.
I look at the broken goggles in its claw. They have sound-cancelling earpieces. Whoever wore these could live their lives without ever seeing or hearing the real world. Everything would be mediated by the Goggles.
It clicks. I’ve heard of serious Goggleheads who develop a personal language, like a verbal shorthand, that’s only understood by them and their own Goggles. The Goggles translate it instantly so no one else notices. These people are fully functioning members of society, with jobs, friends and families, and yet they’re fundamentally alone. A whole isolated culture with a population of one. Until their Goggles break.
I want to stop seeing a monster. There’s a toggle buried somewhere in my settings, but it’ll take a while to find it, and right now there’s a desperate person in front of me.
I tell myself I can do this. I reach up to take off my goggles.
As I unhook them from my ears, I’m already guessing what I’ll see. Black and middle class. Or an overweight teenaged basement dweller. Or an old white lady. Or a Korean pop hipster. An age, a gender, a clothing style, a wealth bracket, and then I’ll know how to react.
The thought calms me down, and I know I can handle this situation. Because in some ways the Goggles aren’t coming off at all.