The augmented everyday
On this page, I present an overview of my personal canon for how augmented reality works in my cyberpunk setting.
I freely admit that I am attempting to have my cake and eat it. Traditional ’80s cyberpunk has a traditional view of computing and in particular the internet: it is a place where you go to. Computers are large, they are fixed in place, and they are used mostly by specialists. This is mirrored by the role of VR in my campaign.
The modern world of the 2020s have rendered this view obsolete. Smartphones have made computing and the internet ubiquitous, always within arm’s reach, and accessible to everyone. This is mirrored by the use of AR in my campaign.
Hopefully, my approach blends the two; maintains the feeling that VR is a special domain only open to a few, while keeping AR for the future masses who are as addicted to their social media feeds as we are today.
Interface issues: augmented reality is not telepathy
When a user is in VR, their body’s nervous system is partially shut down by a RAS override. One of the effects of this is that by blocking sensory input to the brain from the user’s body, it makes it much easier for their datajack to read their conscious and sub-conscious impulses. This, in turn, creates a really efficient control surface; the user can send instructions as fast as they can think.
AR doesn’t work like that, as it has no RAS override. The datajack has to try and pick out the impulses amongst a storm of unrelated sensory processing. For this reason, most control of devices via AR is done indirectly through holos (see below) instead of direct brain-computer interfacing as is typical in VR.
One area where AR can directly read thoughts quite successfully is via a sort of text-to-speech service. As long as the user deliberately and clearly forms words in their mind, their inner monologue can be picked up by the datajack and sent to a commlink or other device. This is often used for text messaging or sending very simple commands, eg. to turn a smart device on/off or fire a smartgun. Compared to doing stuff in VR, it’s glacially slow, though - only about the same speed as talking, perhaps a bit faster if the user has had a lot of practice.
For anything more complex than a on/off switch, the primary type of interface in AR is an Augmented Reality Object (ARO) - often called “arrows” or “holos” in everyday language.
For a user with a datajack, holos are inserted directly into their sensorium. They typically appear as semi-translucent neon glowing screens and buttons, floating in space (hence the name “holo”.) They can have sound elements, and usually have tactile elements too - holographic buttons and controls feel real when the user touches and presses them.
Holos can be private, viewable only by one person; this is typical for someone using their commlink via AR. They can be public, viewable by anyone; this is typical for advertising hoardings and billboards. Or they can be semi-private, shared with a selected group of people.
Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of work still happens in meatspace, with physical displays and interfaces.
The early promise of VR as an accelerator for productivity never emerged, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, using VR for extended periods of time is exhausting, both mentally and physically - it’s like running full-throttle for hours and hours. Few people can maintain the pace. Secondly, the sensation of being cut off from your body when it is in a public place is quite disconcerting to most people, and they find themselves constantly distracted by worrying about their meat. So outside of a small handful of elites working from private offices, most wageslaves only dip into VR occasionally for remote meetings and the like.
AR is more commonly used, but that also has limitations. For one thing, it’s not all that much faster to use than an old-fashioned screen and keyboard. And for another, using holos for detailed work like reading lots of text or running complex simulations often cause troublesome headaches or eyestrain if used for very long periods. So the typical wageslave bounces back and forth, dipping into AR screens while on the move, but falling back to large screens at their desks.
AR and VR without datajacks
Users who do not want or cannot afford datajacks can still get online, but with some big caveats.
VR can only be achieved with a clumsy ‘trode net worn around the head. Sensory fidelity is reduced, compared to a datajack, and speed is reduced. Worst of all, the trodes have to be placed in the right spots, and are easily dislodged if the user moves around while wearing them.
Users can get an AR overlay with a variety of sense link devices: smart contacts, glasses or goggles for visual, earbuds for audio, and feedback gloves for tactile elements. As with ‘trodes, these are clumsy and inferior to datajack interfaces, but they are usable. Civilian versions of these devices are mostly fairly delicate and easily damaged by rough handling in combat. Ruggedised versions exist, but are bulky and obvious.