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Wearable Computers Pit Real Reality Against Altered Reality
In this unhappy alternative future, wearable computers can be harmful to the wearer's health. Take note: Not every enhancement is an upgrade.

Just a few short months after its launch, Gewgle Senses (the combination in-ear transceiver, wrist-worn neuro-stimulator and head-up-display-contact-lenses) had taken the world by storm. The augmented reality experience was so convincing that almost every internet user had ordered a set.

But there was one serious issue: jitter. In essence, jitter is a physical side effect inherent to packet networks where the time it takes for one packet to traverse a network varies from one packet to another. For non-time-critical information, such as textual data or background machine information, jitter may have no consequence whatsoever. However, when one is streaming a sequence of data chunks to end users it can cause a dropped packet ... or two ... or many more. And when this happens the entire stream may simply pause while it “sorts itself out.”

While the product was still in testing, a Gewgle engineer was wearing his prototype Senses device while he cycled home. He had decided that the London roads were simply too drab to cycle again, so he booted up a new app he had been developing. The app kept him on the same route yet replaced all the buildings and scenery with images of a hot tropical beach town. One thought wave later, a stream of red-tiled roofs and whitewashed plaster-coated buildings replaced the rain-soaked streets. With familiar navigational arrows threading out in front of him, he began pedalling home, smiling as he rode.

All was going swimmingly until he turned a corner that broke up his 4G LTE signal for a moment, which meant the data flow stopped. Everything skipped, jumped back a little, cut to grey streets, then back again to the sun, all terribly artifacted and with pixels out of place. He stopped a few moments before reality caught up to virtual reality, and he was promptly run down by a bus that was supposed to be at least another 30m away (according to the Senses data).

Gewgle vowed to fix the issues, gave the engineer a swift burial at sea to ensure no trade secrets escaped, and pressed ahead with its launch.

Now, Gewgle’s long-term response was to ship Senses with a small paper notice reading, “Do not use Gewgle Senses while doing dangerous things in reality.” The problem was that all of the Gewgle Senses promotional material was based on extreme sports practitioners using the technology while jumping off buildings, leaping off moving trains on bikes, and so on; the punters didn’t really get that all these promotions were shot using networks that were highly controlled in the filming area to ensure the best quality of service.

A summer of chaos followed. For those few observers who chose not to hook up to Gewgle Senses, the world began to look like a very bizarre place. When there was a solar flare and much of Toronto’s IP networks were knocked out for an hour or so, the entire populous simply stopped moving.

It was even more bizarre when Beijing’s community was bombarded by the dumping of data that was 24 hours old and had been held in error by a firewall located in the city’s largest internet exchange. Essentially, that week Tuesday happened twice.

The biggest effects, however, were felt in the head office of Mercrosaft, where no matter how hard the team members tried to install their own software on the Senses hardware, all they ended up with was an option to enter safe mode. Their leader, Stave Bollywood, gradually became so infuriated and angry that he started to hover some 5m off the ground -- not a problem in its own right, but the Senses model he was wearing decided that it should try to adjust for the horizon by degaussing and recalibrating the vertical sync, leaving poor Bollywood being slammed up and down into the office floor 24 times a second for a full minute before his colleagues could get hold of him.

By then, of course, he had been brought to his Senses, which was, by all accounts, not a programming success but a genuine miracle.

This article first appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Streaming Media European Edition under the title "Senses Fail."