Not Very Real

The goggles were heavy, and uncomfortable. I could feel a thin layer of sweat forming between my skin and the foam seal that protected my face from the harder plastic bits of the apparatus. I thumbed the “record” button on my cassette player.

“User experience note: the fucking things seem purpose-built to generate nervousness. It’s bad enough that they completely obscure my field of vision, but the way they hermetically wrap over my eyes makes me want to rip them off and be done with them entirely.” I didn’t mention that this was the exact response I’d expected to have after several years of passively observing other users.

There was a hard ping from somewhere, probably the interface unit that sat on the desk between the googles and the computer. The matte black box had several control knobs and buttons on it, but they were useless to anyone en-goggled. I stared into the absolute darkness in front of me, my mind trying and failing to form any meaning from it. Then the shapeless noise began to suffuse with color, softly at first, as though it were the penumbra of night as it was invaded by the predawn light.

Something was grinding inside the box; I was sure of it. Like the teeth of gears not quite meshing but trying to turn anyway. The urge to remove the goggles and investigate was overwhelming. The air trapped between my eyes and the device felt wet.

A speck of brighter light, not bright enough to annoy, blossomed on the undefined horizon, a glimmer of a digital sunrise that shattered the formlessness and established reference. It grew into a line, the initial point expanding and glowing brighter, and I was filled with the sensation of being drawn forward. My hands gripped the canvas armrests attached to the chair I sat in. I was being pulled toward the light, and a hundred metaphors about the journey to the afterlife flashed through my mind. The glow grew, wider than my field of vision, and swallowed me whole. I was floating in a field of dim white, a near-grey of solid static. Then it shifted into a light blue tone, like a robin’s egg, then deeper, the color of a clear summer sky. Into violet, and near black again. The box beeped, ground, and then began to purr.

Words formed at a comfortable distance; billboards that approached on a darkened highway.




The spelling error annoyed me, but it was forgivable as the creators of the device weren’t native English speakers. It was enough that it was rendered in such crisp detail.

“After an initial disorienting warm-up phase, I’m greeted with a version ID and warning. The sharpness of the text is shockingly good.” I turned my head, then rolled my eyes. “The device appears to be tracking my head movements and is projecting the text into a fixed position.” I spun the chair around with my toes, then back again, taking care not to put too much tension on the cables running from the googles to the box. “I seem to have a 360-degree field of vision, though there’s nothing to see other than the text.”

I waited for a while. Nothing was happening. I considered pulling the goggles off and searching around for the manual and raised my hands to do so. That’s when the projections of my arms floated into view in front of me.

Drawn in transparent wireframes, each arm ended in a four-fingered hand. I pointed with my left index finger and the projection mirrored my movement. I jabbed at the text, and it exploded into a million points of light that faded away to nothing, like a firework bursting.

“A flashing ‘confirm’ button would have helped,” I said, and watched as the scene changed. A hard horizon line drew itself in the distance, then two more lines raced out from a central vanishing point and flashed past me on either side, forming a kind of road directly under my feet. At least, I assumed it was under my feet, as it appeared that the system was only set to render my arms. Along the sides of the road, thick oblong shapes were springing up, like buildings. As with the road they populated past me and before long I was standing in a long corridor not unlike a city block.

A spherical form detached itself from the closet building-shape and approached me. It spoke in what sounded like Chinese, and above it a speech bubble grew around English text.


2014.09.14 – 2023.05.10

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