Preface: As a young researcher at Air Force Research Laboratory in the early 1990's, I developed the first interactive augmented reality system and tested it with human subjects. The users were so enthusiastic, I was convinced AR would become critical to our future. This led me down a path where I founded one of the early VR companies (Immersion Corp, 1993) and one of the early AR companies (Outland Research, 2004) and have been writing on the topic for years.
Having been involved for so long, I’m often asked what the future will be like. To paint a picture of our augmented lives at the end of this decade, I wrote the short narrative below in 2020. Like any fictional forecast it will not play out exactly like this, but I feel confident much of this portrayal will come true.
It was a tiny room no larger than a walk-in closet. A small woman in a crisp white lab coat stood beside a large optometry machine, its smooth black surface covered in silver dials and knobs and levers. Flipping between settings she asked, “Better or worse?”
“Better,” rang a voice from behind the contraption.
“Brighter or darker?”
“Perfect!” The woman pulled the machine forward, revealing Gordon Pines, squinting as the overhead lights suddenly came on. Balding with gray stubble, he looked older than his 68 years would suggest. He also looked tired. That’s because he was tired — exhausted from the simple act of leaving his small apartment and venturing out into the busy city. Chicago had been his home for three decades but somehow it just didn’t feel familiar anymore.
“Follow me,” the technician gestured.
And she led Gordon out of the tiny exam room. It was one of many such rooms on the far side of a busy Apple store. The place was bustling with activity, dozens of customers tapping and swiping in midair as they tried out features and functions that Gordon couldn’t see.
“Quite a racket you’ve got here,” he joked as they crossed the showroom, “convincing perfectly rational people to pay good money for empty space.”
The technician laughed.
That’s when they passed a circle of kids playing on the floor. There was a small boy standing in the center reaching upward, breath held and eyes wide. “Go — Go — Go,” the other kids chanted as he got on his tippy-toes. A tense moment and the boy opened his hand, exhaling with relief. Hoots and hollers erupted all around.
Gordon just stared, confused.
“This way,” the technician called.
Gordon followed to a wall of glass, a bright room beyond. It reminded him of the room he peered into thirty-five years ago when his son Lonny was born, filled with infants being warmed and swaddled. Of course there were no newborns here — just tanks of steaming liquid, dozens of them, each with a laser aimed into the fluid. Gordon watched as the flickering beams etched out precision sets of contact lenses, each pair robotically lifted from its tank, then washed and dried and deposited into small white jewelry boxes.
“Is this really your first pair of Carbons?” the technician asked as Gordon gazed through the glass, watching box after box roll down a sleek metal conveyor.
“Yeah, I finally surrendered,” he shrugged. “My son’s been hounding me for years. My grandkids too. They say I’m missing out, but that’s just code for not fitting in.”
The technician laughed but Gordon wasn’t kidding. This didn’t feel like a choice to him, but a requirement, imposed by a world that was rapidly moving on without him.
That’s when he noticed a teenage girl being handed a little white box. “Do they have night-vision boosters?” she asked a salesman, giddy. “And instant replay?”
“Those are Carbon 14’s,” the salesman beamed. “They have everything!”
And he pointed the girl towards a dressing room to try them on.
That’s when Gordon was handed his own little white box.
He just stared, frozen.
“Don’t worry,” the technician whispered, “it’s plug and play!”
Gordon sat at a smooth white counter in a small white dressing room, a large mirror directly ahead. A nervous breath and he opened the white box, revealing two contact lenses, black as charcoal, and a pair of tiny wireless earbuds. That was it, nothing else — certainly nothing that looked like instructions. “Now what?” he sighed.
In response, a green light began flashing on the earbuds. Gordon pondered, then grabbed the buds and popped them in, pushing them deep. “Greetings Mr. Pines,” rang an excessively cheerful female voice. “Can you hear me alright?”
Gordon nodded, motion sensors in the buds detecting his reply.
“Stupendous!” the voice gushed. “I’m sooooo excited to meet you.”
Gordon grunted, skeptical.
That’s when one of the lenses began glowing inside the box.
“Go ahead,” said the bubbly voice, “touch it.”
Gordon stared for a moment, then slowly reached. The instant he made contact, the lens clung to his fingertip by electrostatic attraction, still ink-black but now oddly reflective.
“Well done,” the voice sang, “now put it in.”
Gordon lifted his finger, guiding himself in the mirror.
But then he stopped, unable to touch his own eye.
“A little closer,” his earbuds insisted, “closer, you can do it.”
Feeling pressured by the voice, Gordon forced his finger forward, until — snap, the lens leapt from his finger onto his eye, propelled by electrostatic charge. Then, as if by magic, the lens brightened for a moment before going perfectly transparent.
Gordon smiled. Although he’d never admit it out loud, it actually felt good to be praised by the product he had just purchased. So much so, he eagerly reached for the other lens. It took a few tries, but he got it in, this time without any coaching.
“You rock!” the voice sang. “Now, double-blink.”
“Blink twice, fast — that’s how you turn them on.”
So Gordon blinked.
Flash — a glowing yellow grid appeared over his visual field. It began as a flat sheet but quickly molded itself to the contours of the room, coating the smooth white walls and counters. Another flash and the grid melted away, replaced by virtual overlays. The drab walls were now covered by elegant velvet wallpaper, the plastic counters replaced by rich mahogany, the linoleum floor now Italian marble. “Whoa…” Gordon whispered.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” the voice gushed. “These are Carbon 14’s — everything is spatially registered with near perfect precision, not to mention the optimized color-blending.”
Gordon wasn’t listening. He was too busy admiring the antique moldings around the impressive oak door. “It looks so… real.”
“I set your defaults to Classic Décor with Victorian Accents. Of course, you’re welcome to change the settings. We have over 2,000 themes to choose from.”
That’s when something small fluttered into Gordon’s view.
For a moment he thought it was a hummingbird or dragonfly, but then he saw it was a tiny woman with glassy wings! “I’m Una,” she sang in the same giddy voice. “I’m here to help.”
Gordon gaped, “You’re… a fairy?”
“Technically I’m an Elf,” she laughed, “an Electronic Life Facilitator, but because your settings are Victorian, my aesthetic defaults to the fairy genre. Do you want to reconfigure me?”
“What… why?” Gordon reeled.
“Because I’m not just any elf — I’m your elf.” Una fluttered closer, now hovering inches from his nose. “Only you can see me, so you might as well configure me the way you want.”
“But why?” Gordon pressed. “What’s the point?”
“I told you, I’m your Electronic Life Facilitator,” the fairy giggled. “Life is hard these days, with so many places to go and things to do, endless details to keep track of and decisions to make. My job is to help you with… well… all of it.”
Gordon just stared, speechless.
“This is where I usually hang out,” Una added, fluttering towards his right ear. “From here I can assist without getting in the way.”
Gordon eyed his reflection in the mirror, dumbfounded by the cute little fairy floating over his shoulder. Not knowing what else to say, he asked — “So, can I go home now?”
“Of course!” Una burst. “But let’s get your halo installed first.”
“Your Status Halo. It’s how you present yourself to the world.”
Una snapped her fingers and a large glassy dome appeared over Gordon’s head, his name ‘Gordon T. Pines’ glowing upon it, along with his age and interests, his favorite music and movies. There was even a mention of his profession — Retired Middle School Teacher.
“People will see all that?” Gordon gaped.
“It’s just the default,” the fairy giggled. “We can add whatever you want — pics, vids, animations, sound-effects…”
“No, no, no — I don’t want any of that.”
“Why not?” Una seemed surprised.
That’s when Una detected a sharp rise in the blood pressure readings from Gordon’s earbuds. Her algorithms jumped in a new direction — “How about we go minimalist?”
“Just your name and basic stats. We can always add more later.”
“Stupendous!” And the halo condensed to just his name glowing on the glassy dome, his age and marital status below. That’s when Una asked, “How are you feeling right now?”
“Okay, I guess.”
And two large words — FEELING OKAY — appeared atop his halo.
Gordon stared at his reflection, dazed. “People really go out like this?”
Exiting the dressing room, Gordon’s jaw dropped. That’s because the Apple store was now a grand Victorian Marketplace with vaulted ceilings of iron and glass, ornate chandeliers hanging. And yet it didn’t seem old-fashioned, for all around, customers were fingering glowing objects in the air, tapping and stretching, pushing and pulling, zooming and panning. And above each person was a shimmering halo of pics and vids, each with two bold words flashing at the very top — FEELING GREAT! — FEELING REMARKABLE! — FEELING STUPENDOUS!
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Una whispered.
Gordon didn’t respond.
He was too distracted by the huge glowing ads that leapt out at him as he crossed the showroom, bursting into his path with big smiling faces pitching products he didn’t want or need. “Optimize your day with Smart-Schedule Plus!” a pretty woman beamed, her simulated friends nodding behind her. “Never forget a face with Name-Whisper Pro!” an elderly man appeared. “Trust me Gordon, it helps you avoid embarrassing situations.”
Each time an ad popped out, Gordon recoiled and stepped around.
“You can walk right through them,” Una giggled, “they’re harmless.”
That’s when Gordon noticed the technician who helped him earlier. Her crisp white lab coat was now swirling with wild colors, like tie-dye in motion. “Like it?” she asked, eyeing Gordon. “It’s called a canvas-coat,” and she pointed to racks of smooth white clothing, everything from jackets and pants to scarves and hats. “It’s the next big thing.”
“And they’re on sale,” Una whispered in his ear, “20% off.”
Gordon didn’t respond, his gaze finding the circle of kids playing on the floor. As before, they were cheering a boy in the middle, but now Gordon could see the glorious medieval castle at the center of the group, complete with tiny flags blowing in a sim-breeze. “Careful,” a girl exclaimed, as the boy placed a sim-brick atop the tallest spire. “Careful!”
The tower swayed but didn’t fall, cheers erupting all around.
Even Gordon smiled.
The city was an explosion of color and motion, every inch vying for Gordon’s attention as he walked down the street. It wasn’t just the storefronts, which erupted onto the sidewalk with simulated supermodels strutting the latest fashions, or the restaurants that tempted passersby with steaming plates of sim-food, it was the apartments above too. Every window was splashed with colorful nonsense, from local gossip and personal ads, to shrines to favorite sports teams and rock bands. And of course, there were expressions of political rage everywhere, mostly from paid advertisers, eager to rent your window-space for a generous monthly fee.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Una noted, as if she could read Gordon’s mind.
Of course, she couldn’t. She simply had access to Data Central, the vast database that correlated the sentiments of a billion users to the dilation of their pupils and the rhythm of their gaits, even the conductivity of their skin. Using this data, Una had determined with 98% certainty that Gordon was feeling thoroughly overwhelmed.
“Change is hard,” she whispered, trying to put him at ease.
“Change is for the young,” he grunted, “and the foolish.”
Just then, a sim-airplane crossed the sky.
It unfurled a glowing banner — ‘AMY WILL YOU MARRY ME?’
All around, pedestrians were smiling and pointing.
That’s when a sim-rocket roared into the air. It exploded into sim-fireworks, filling the sky with — ‘YES DAVE… OF COURSE!’
Applause erupted from everyone on the street.
Everyone but Gordon, who abruptly looked away.
Una noticed, making a mental note.
Early morning light filtered through the curtains, casting soft rays onto Gordon’s bed. His eyes slowly opened and he released a lingering yawn. But before he could sit up and stretch, Una fluttered into view, hovering directly above. “Morning Gordy,” she bubbled, “Happy day!” She then floated to the nearest window, as if peering outside. “They’re expecting clear skies in the mid-seventies,” she added, “not a cloud in sight!”
Gordon finally sat up and glanced around. His bedroom was now awash with elaborate overlays, giving his humble apartment the stately feel of an old English manor, complete with varnished wood walls and an elegant stone fireplace. Last night he thought it was all a bit much, even silly, but now he had to admit — he liked waking up in such a magical place.
“How about the ten-day forecast?” Una asked.
“I’m good,” Gordon mumbled.
“Or the headlines?” And she made news-clippings appear on floating panes of glass, so skillfully curated she even highlighted an article about Gordon’s beloved White Sox.
“Really, I’m good,” Gordon repeated, firmer.
“Also, Lonny left you a message while –”
“Give me a minute,” Gordon shot. “I’m still waking up.”
And he headed for the bathroom. Una followed, hovering by his ear. It wasn’t until Gordon was standing at the toilet, pants around his knees, that he noticed the tiny fairy floating there. “What the hell?” he snapped. “How about some privacy?”
“Sorry,” she eased out of the bathroom. Then, as the sound of peeing rang, she added, “Just so you know, my sensory input comes from your Carbons and the spatial database, not from the projected location of my–”
Slam — Gordon shut the door.
Una made a mental note, no bathrooms. She was designed to rapidly adjust to the needs of her host, even the quirks that defied logic. Gordon was far less adaptive. “Nobody has boundaries anymore,” he called over the toilet flushing, “it’s pathological.”
Exiting the bathroom, Gordon crossed his small apartment, his living room now two stories tall with a library of sim-books reaching the ceiling. Una followed over his shoulder as he wandered around tidying up. Gordon couldn’t quite see her floating there, but he could sense her presence, as you might sense an unseen person sharing a room. Although he didn’t want to admit it to himself, it felt good not to be alone, especially in this apartment.
Una detected the mood change from the blood pressure readings in his earbuds. And because she had access to his full data-history, including details of his wife’s tragic death five years prior, she knew that loneliness and isolation were his biggest burdens. In fact, her algorithms were already formulating a strategy to help.
“So Gordy…” she eased as they entered the kitchen, “what exciting things do you have planned for the week?” And a calendar for April 2030 appeared, floating beside her.
Gordon had nothing planned and suspected Una already knew this. “I can’t decide,” he snarked, “skydiving or drag-racing. What do you think?”
“I think you’re avoiding the question,” Una returned. Then, as Gordon reached for a bag of French Roast, she flew directly in front of him. “Why not go out for coffee?”
“Go out?” Gordon stiffened. “I make perfectly good latte.”
“I’m sure you do, but you’re not going to meet anyone here.”
Gordon scoffed and reached for a mug.
Una hovered in his face. “There are seven coffeehouses in easy walking distance,” she pressed, “and three of them are frequented by single women in your age-group.”
“My age-group?” Gordon huffed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Una held firm — “Do you want to meet someone or not?”
Gordon sat in a hip Chicago coffeehouse, a steaming mug in hand. As promised, the clientele was mostly his generation, mostly single, and mostly women. This was no accident, as the majority of patrons had been coached here by their Carbons, with younger generations and couples directed to other establishments. Setting down his coffee, Gordon scanned the room. Everyone had elaborate halos hovering over them, aglow with favorite music and movies, photos of family and friends, especially grandkids. Every so often, Gordon noticed someone stand and walk to another table, introducing themselves before sitting and chatting.
“Excuse me,” a bald man said to a well-dressed woman, her silky scarf rippling with simulated color. “I don’t mean to intrude, but do you grow exhibition roses?” Of course the man already knew that she did, her halo aglow with award-winning flowers. “For twenty years,” the woman smiled, her scarf brightening with her mood.
Gordon watched as they fell into casual conversation, thinking this might not be as difficult as he feared. After all, he knew he could be charming when he tried. That’s when Gordon noticed a silver-haired woman across the room. There was something about her — a kindness in her face that drew him in.
Una noted Gordon’s interest too, for his Carbons tracked not only the direction of his gaze but the intensity of his focus. So when the woman stood and walked toward him, Una was tracking his anticipation. But then, as the woman walked past and sat at another table, Una also noted Gordon’s abrupt disappointment.
“We really should expand your halo,” she whispered. “It makes you look… antisocial.”
Gordon squinted, annoyed.
“Do you want to meet someone or not?
“Fine,” he conceded, “but keep it simple.”
“Of course!” And with a few quick gestures, Una added bright images of his kids and grandkids, old classroom photos from when he taught middle school, even a few album-covers of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as he was a lifelong jazz fan. And finally, the two bold words atop his halo changed from FEELING OKAY to FEELING FABULOUS!
Gordon felt ridiculous.
“Why not add my medical history,” he tossed, “and credit score?”
“No need,” Una ignored the sarcasm. “But I do recommend we install Matchmaker Plus. It’s only $12 per month and it gives me access to advanced romance features.”
“What the hell are romance features?”
Before Una could reply, Gordon noticed a woman heading towards him. He assumed she’d walk right past, but she stopped and smiled. “Anyone sitting here?”
“Um, no…” Gordon stammered, gesturing at the empty seat. “It’s all yours.”
“You’re a doll,” and the woman dragged the chair back to her own table.
Gordon deflated. “Fine, install it.”
“Stupendous!” And with a snap of her fingers, a tiny pink heart appeared in Gordon’s peripheral vision. Another snap and Una’s wings began to glow the same pink color. She fluttered, trying them out, which sent a puff of pink glitter into the air. “This is exciting!”
“Now what?” Gordon asked.
“Now this,” and Una sped away from the table, a trail of pink glitter behind her.
Gordon watched in astonishment as Una blazed around the coffeehouse — a tiny comet darting from table to table, woman to woman, hovering over each for just a moment. And then she was back, stopping inches from Gordon’s nose. “There are two women here who have potential,” she said out of breath, “but neither has a Compatibility Index in the upper brackets. I recommend extending the search. How about a half-mile radius?”
“Um… sure,” Gordon reeled.
“Fantabulous!” And with that, Una blasted across the room and out the front door, a steaming trail of pink left behind. Gordon expected everyone to be stunned by the spectacle, but there was no reaction at all, for only he could see Una. That’s when Gordon wondered how many other little fairies were buzzing around this place, whispering in ears, nudging and coaxing and prodding. Was this really a healthy way to live, he pondered, or was this all just –
WHOOSH — before he could finish the thought, the tiny pink comet raced back into the coffeehouse, blazing to a halt right in front of him. “I found someone!”
“She’s not far,” Una beamed, “and her Compatibility Index is 98.7!”
“Is that good?”
Gordon followed Una down a busy Chicago sidewalk, struggling to keep up with her aggressive pace. On every block, countless advertisements leapt out at him, pitching everything a man in his late-sixties might need, from vitamins and life insurance to high-fiber shakes.
That’s when a familiar voice rang.
Gordon turned and saw his barber stepping from his shop. At least it looked like his barber — really it was a SmartClone. “Gordy, I haven’t seen you in six weeks,” the sim-barber called out. “I’ll give you a trim at half-price if you jump in the chair right now.”
Gordon ignored him and kept walking.
“Sixty percent off,” the sim-barber bellowed. “Sixty-five!”
Gordon plowed forward, block after block, reaching every intersection with perfect timing. This was no accident. It was because Una, like all elves, monitored the traffic signals, adjusting the walking speed of her host for optimal efficiency. It was a public service, ensuring everyone got where they were going without crowds building up at the crosswalks.
“How much farther?” Gordon asked, feeling the pace in his legs.
“Almost there,” Una replied. “Her name is Caroline, by the way. She’s 66 years-old, widowed with two grown kids. She lives in Old Town but is currently walking her dog in Lincoln Park. He’s a twelve year-old schnauzer named Frankie.”
“A schnauzer?” Gordon interjected. “I had three schnauzers!”
“I told you, she’s a remarkable match.”
As they rounded a corner, Una picked up the pace, determined to get to the park before Caroline left. Fortunately, Caroline had her own elf running Matchmaker Plus, which meant Una could coordinate the encounter over wireless channels. This was important, as Frankie had just completed his morning business and Caroline was about to head home. Her elf intervened, noting that the old dog was panting and might need some water.
Caroline responded as expected, taking a quick break on a bench.
That’s when Gordon entered the park.
The place was packed with people — jogging and cycling, pushing strollers and walking dogs. It was so crowded Gordon might have had trouble finding Caroline if not for the pink dotted line Una projected on the pavement. “I feel like Pac-Man,” he snarked as he followed the glowing dots. “Should I be on the lookout for ghosts?”
Meanwhile Caroline was trying to get Frankie to drink.
“Don’t look up,” her elf whispered, “but it appears you have a suitor.”
“Wonderful,” Caroline sighed, “just what I need.”
“His name is Gordon Pines. He’s 68 years-old, widowed for five, and you’ll be interested to know he was a middle school teacher just like you.”
“Big deal,” Caroline grumbled to her elf, who wasn’t a fairy like Una, but a wise old genie named Kai. He had a long gray beard and floated on a tiny flying carpet.
“His Compatibility Index is stellar,” Kai noted. “The best yet.”
“I told you, I’m done with Matchmaker Plus.”
The genie held firm, “Do you want to meet someone or not?”
That’s when Gordon approached. He hadn’t felt this awkward since he was a pimply teenager looking for a date to the spring dance. Sensing his unease, Una whispered — “Just smile and take a breath, then comment on her dog.”
So Gordon did. “Nice whiskers,” he said boldly, forcing Caroline to look up at him. “He’s such a big fella — too big to be a Standard, but not quite a Giant.”
“You know schnauzers?” Caroline replied, skeptical.
“Outlived three of them,” Gordon laughed. “Best breed there is.”
An awkward silence, so Una whispered, “Ask his name.”
So Gordon asked, “What’s the big guy’s name?”
“Frankie.” Caroline softened. “He’s a Standard, but a very big boy.”
Another silence, so Una whispered, “Now tell her your name.”
“Oh, I’m Gordon by the way.”
“I’m Caroline.” It was a perfectly polite response, but she didn’t invite her suitor to sit, which was what her elf was aggressively suggesting in her ear.
At the same time, Gordon let Frankie smell his hand, for he knew that was the best way to introduce yourself to an unfamiliar dog. He then scratched behind Frankie’s ears, the schnauzer indulging in the attention. “He likes you,” Caroline noted, surprised.
“Such a big fella,” Gordon grinned.
Caroline watched him closely, her gaze warming.
“Please, sit…” she finally offered. “It’ll make Frankie’s day.”
So Gordon sat, instantly getting a huge dog in his lap.
Silent seconds passed as Caroline and Gordon pretended to focus on Frankie, but really, they were stealing glances at each other’s halo. Gordon noticed Caroline’s love for collecting antiques. Caroline noticed Gordon’s passion for jazz. Then, at nearly the same instant, both said with feigned surprise — “You taught middle school too?”
“Jinx,” Caroline joked. “Some coincidence, huh?”
Gordon laughed. “Totally random.”
They shared a moment, both thinking this might not be a disaster after all. But then Caroline squinted as if suddenly annoyed. Gordon thought he must have done something wrong, until he realized — her irritation wasn’t aimed at him, but her own shoulder.
“No, no…” she whispered, “those are terrible ideas.”
Gordon was instantly charmed, for he’d never seen anyone argue with their elf before.
“Sorry,” Caroline turned back. “seems Cliché to me, but Kai recommends we talk about our grandkids, but first — he insists that I ask what middle school you taught at.”
“Well, if Kai insists,” Gordon snarked, “Laguna Middle for 35 years.”
“You taught at the same school for 35 years!” Caroline was genuinely impressed. “Did they at least give you a gold pen when you retired?”
“Silver,” Gordon teased, “budget cuts.”
Smiles — real smiles — possibly the first either had shared in weeks.
And yet, both were at a loss for words.
For Gordon, it wasn’t that he lacked things to say. It was that people these days were always put-off by his comments, discounting him as grumpy or out-of-touch. In truth, he just didn’t understand the obsession everyone had with constant change. Lose your wife of 38 years, he wanted to tell people, then see how much you like change. Of course that wasn’t what Una was suggesting he talk about. She was prodding him to mention his love of baseball or his fondness for travel. At the same time, Kai was advising Caroline to bring up her passion for hiking. That’s when both realized, they were eyeing their own shoulders for too long.
They each turned back and laughed.
“Should we just talk about our grandkids?” Gordon joked.
“Grandkids?” Caroline matched his tone. “I was about to ask if you’ve tried those new high-fiber shakes. Everyone in our age group is talking about them.”
As they shared a quiet laugh, a sim-man in his sixties suddenly appeared walking towards them, “Did someone mention high-fiber shakes?” and he lifted a sim-mug, taking a huge swig. “There’s a two-for-one special at Drink Barn all week!” And then he was gone.
Gordon was about to make a joke, asking if sim-shakes cause sim-diarrhea, but his gaze was drawn to a chatty group of young parents pushing strollers, their halos aglow with rainbows and unicorns — an arms race of digital cuteness. Even the toddlers had halos floating above, adorned with rabbit ears and googly-eyes and colorful propellers, each with two bold words at the very top — FEELING GIFTED — FEELING TALENTED — FEELING SUBLIME.
As they passed by, one of the moms stopped and knelt down, softly scolding her daughter for tossing candy wrappers onto the pavement. It was a totally reasonable interaction and yet Gordon couldn’t help but wonder if it was really the mom who was disciplining the girl, or an invisible elf whispering in the mom’s ear.
“This can’t be the way we were supposed to live,” Gordon sighed as the noisy group walked away. “It can’t be, and yet nobody seems to mind.”
“Oh, they mind,” Caroline returned, “but what choice do we have?”
Gordon looked at her, surprised.
“I can’t even go to the grocery store without these things,” she added, gesturing to her eyes. “That’s not a choice, it’s a requirement. And really, is it any more convenient to have the prices floating next to the bread instead of printed on each loaf?”
Gordon was stunned.
That’s because somebody finally said what he’d been thinking for years — that none of this was voluntary, even if nobody would admit it out loud. And suddenly, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he felt for all the busy people rushing past, glowing and glistening, moderated and facilitated, augmented from head-to-toe, all because they were so afraid of falling behind.
“Maybe this is all just growing pains,” he wondered aloud.
“A mix of good and bad, but eventually we’ll figure it all out.”
That’s when a teenage boy skateboarded past, the words FEELING HORNEY above his head, his halo filled with bikini-clad women on the hoods of sports cars and gory posters from horror films, not to mention the animation of himself barfing into a toilet over and over.
Caroline smirked, “Growing pains?”
“We can hope,” Gordon tossed, then serious — “the truth is, I have no idea where this world is headed, but I do know one thing for sure,” and he gestured to his eyes. “Without these, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, and I for one am sincerely glad we are.”
“Me too,” Caroline agreed. She then handed Frankie’s leash to Gordon and stood from the bench, gesturing for him to join her.
Together they strolled the park, laughing and smiling and getting to know each other. Of course they had their awkward moments, but both were surprised how easy it was to keep the conversation going, even after they had powered off their Carbons and pulled out their earbuds and forgotten all about the tiny elves who brought them together for a small monthly fee. And it wasn’t just while walking Frankie around that busy park, but over coffee, and over dinner, and over the days and weeks and years to come.
It turns out, they really were a remarkable match.
Note — a longer version of this story was originally published under the title “Carbon Dating” in the sci-fi anthology paperback “Spring Into Sci-Fi 2021” from Cloaked Press, March 27, 2021.