PlaceCoin imagines a near-future where augmented reality glasses are commonplace, and miraculously aren’t controlled by a single big tech company
Instead our glasses show us information, art, and history placed there by other users, who earn points and even money for placing great content that gets upvoted, and explores what that world might look like, good and bad.
I heard the voice distantly at first, not really paying attention as I focused on my work. By the third time, I realized the yelling was directed at me.
"Hey! Is that you?" She hollered again, pointing up at the sky above the street between us, crossing the street towards me.
I swiped the air in front of me and the space between us was suddenly clear as day, the giant 3D sculpture I’d been working on removed from sight. My glasses no longer showing the massive Augmented Reality installation I'd been working on, I was suddenly able to see the person jogging towards me.
Feeling strangely exposed I glanced down 26th St and then past her into the park. From what I could see she was alone, which was a good thing. I usually worked in private, but I was putting up my newest installation today, and I wanted to get the placement on the building just right which can be tricky to do remote. Truth be told, I also liked to see my finished pieces come together, spreading out on top of the world in AR, but hidden from view in the real world. They'd be invisible to the naked eye, but I paid top price for my Places so I could control the root node. That way my installation would be part of the default experience for anyone wearing AR glasses, which these days was basically anyone under 30, and a lot of other folks besides.
The Museum of Math had gotten some grant money to create AR attractions outside their space - and they were offering me a sweet chunk of PlaceCoin to make them a custom interactive piece. As an added bonus, my work was generally fun and kid friendly, and was all but guaranteed to get solid upvotes and earn a nice return on the Coin of my own that I’d had to lay down to secure the MoMath spot (grants will only get you so far).
Back in the real world I was standing on the corner of 26th and Broadway as a woman walked straight at me. She clearly wanted to chat.
“Is that you?” she asked again, gesturing at the space above the front of MoMath.
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m doing an ‘artist in residence’ stint with MoMath.” I could see she was unimpressed. “William,” I said, extending my hand.
“I know who you are” she shot back as she turned to look up at my digital sculpture once more. “This!? This Fibonacci kiddie bullshit? This is why you stomped on my Spot?”
“Whoa, hey!” I said, starting to feel a bit defensive. Apparently she’d had the previous claim to this Spot, and I’d ousted her when I put up my installation. “MoMath sponsored my work here, and it’s their building”
“Bullshit. They may own the physical building - and they rent, by the way - but they don’t have any claim on the AR Place around it, and you know it.”
I did know it. Among Placers - those of us who spent an inordinate amount of time making our mark on the virtual world - there were clear lines drawn around this. History outlived ownership. Truth would outlast lies. Useful information would trump advertising and spam almost every time. It was built into the rules of the game, but it was also the code we lived by. It was what we fought for. MoMath might not have had property rights over this Place, but that didn’t stop them from being able to make a claim like everyone else.
“Okay. Okay, yes. But it’s not like I’m hanging a giant Starbucks sign here. This is an extension of the museum. It’s educational art. I don’t get what your problem is.”
“The problem, William” she spat, “Is that this is the third time in the past month you’ve stomped on one of my spots, and I’m running out of Coin. You’re running up the rent on my installations!”
"Holy shit. You're HistoryGirl?"
"Oh man, no way! I didn't know you had an installation in Madison Square Park!"
"I don't. Not yet at least." She said. "I'm doing an immersive on electric light from Union square up to here, it's where they did the first run of sun lamps back in 1880. But I have to buy up my spots in stealth and then put up my installations all at once, otherwise griefers get into pissy little bidding wars with me. Like you are right now."
"I'm not... " I started, but she cut me off quickly.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re not doing it on purpose, you're still messing up this whole install. I've got every Coin I have invested in this. It's going to be huge, and you're the only one with enough Coin to screw me up. So here you show up, right on the spot where I need to be, putting this modern pseudo-educational monstrosity up, and I'm not having it. I need you off my Place. Now."
"I, I..." I stammered. I wanted to be mad, I really did. She had no more claim than I did, and if I wanted to I could easily outbid her for this spot. I had plenty of Coin myself and the Museum might be able to cough up more if they had to. Besides, I only needed a small footprint and she had almost a mile to cover between here and Union Square. It was insane that she could even hold that much territory against the ad buyers, signage, and trolls.
But I could imagine what she was planning. New York's first electric corridor, magically reverted to the way it was in 1880. Old New York, replete with HistoryGirl’s usual cast of AR reenactors, playing out on a constant loop. Her work was amazing and you could live in it for hours. This sounded epic. And lucrative. Something that audacious would be a major event and would probably earn a huge return. It would probably even cause a tourism pop for the area. This could be good for both of us.
"Look, you wanna grab a coffee?" I asked.
We stood in line quietly until we finally ordered our coffees.
"Okay so listen" I said, broaching the topic at hand. "You and I both like to own the root node, right?"
"Right. Installations don't go viral unless you can take over the default experience for all users. Most people don't even know how to filter their glasses by subtag."
"It's the same for me. If I don't get my art in people's faces, it just sits there, and I need to make a return on each install to have enough Coin to do the next. Look, I'm happy to host you in a subtag..."
"That's not going to cut it. I need the root node to finish the experience."
"And I've already spent the museum's commission, so I can't really just hand it over." I said. "What if we collaborated?"
"How do you mean?"
"What if my install was an extension of yours. Something like a 'POWER of Math' exhibit, where the museum teaches people the math and science behind the first electric lights."
"Oh.." she said, mulling it over. "That could actually be kinda cool. What about your sculpture?"
"Well, what were you going to put in that Place?"
"Well in 1880 that location had sun towers. It was arc lighting - just these infinite bolts of lightning held suspended between two electrodes that burned up slowly. They were so bright they hurt people's eyes, and you had to wear sunglasses to look straight at them. The biggest one in the row is supposed to be right at the north edge of the park."
"OK, so what if we put up the sun tower, but as you get closer to the tower, these ghostlike equations for electric conversion and transfer drift from it towards the museum. And the front of the museum could be reconstructed to a period look.."
"Do you think the museum would go for it?"
"They'd be idiots not to. You're putting up the biggest install in the history of PlaceCoin, and they get to be the gift shop at the end of the ride. I bet they'd redo the whole museum for the event. Half of the exhibits are going to be my mini indoor installs anyway."
"OK, that would be cool."
"I mean, I wanted to include more historical info and science in my install, but I didn't want to break the reenactment experience, so it was just going to be exploratory. This bridges the gap, and let's people experience the scene and then dig into the why and how. It's perfect actually."
"Okay then!" I said, "it's a deal!”
“By the way - what’s your real name? ” I asked, realizing I still only knew her as the internet Placer celebrity History Girl.
“Samantha, but everyone calls me Sam.”
Sam and I spent the next 3 weeks working together. We spent almost every night and weekend building out models, programming the experience, and then testing it. Most of the time we were running in simulator mode, our glasses blocking out the interior of her small apartment or mine, wherever we’d chosen to work that night. We’d place our art against virtual versions of the buildings and locations we were dressing up with digital installations. We spent a number of nights testing the code by taking picnics in the middle of the experience, sitting in the middle of a strangely empty Broadway circa 1880, awash in the over-bright light of the sun lamps.
Sam had given me write access to the Places she’d claimed all along Broadway with her massive stash of Coin, and when I finished the sun tower-meets-math-museum piece and a few new mini installations for inside the museum, I’d started helping out with her build. She’d been working on this for nearly a year, and was a truly massive undertaking. Every storefront was dressed up, and the tops of buildings were lopped off to their original height with a relatively starry sky behind. New York with stars as a backdrop was really something to behold.
The glasses superimposed us on the scene, so we could work and talk together inside it to get things just right.
We weren’t talking about it publicly, but rumors were starting to swirl. Between Sam’s land-grab and my big buy at the top of the park, we were holding a lot of square footage without doing much with it, and the PlaceWatcher blog was starting to run with the story. HistoryGirl’s installations were big news and once people traced out the blockchain for the Coin sitting on those spaces and the blogs surmised that we were collaborating, the buzz started to grow. It was fun seeing the theories about what we might be working on emerge, but they had no idea what was coming.
Unfortunately, neither did we.
“So can I ask you a question?” I said. I was high up above Broadway in front of the facade of a building in the VR facsimile of our install restoring the gargoyle based on a photo I’d found. It wasn’t 100% accurate, but it was at least period.
“Sure” she said from the street below, where she was working on an NPC’s costume. Her voice was incongruent with her position, sounding like she was right beside me because, of course, she was actually standing in my apartment no more than 3 feet from me.
“How in the world did you pull off Hamilton vs Hamilton?”
I heard her laugh, and take a deep breath. Over the past weeks she’d gotten the hint that I knew her work, but I’d kept any general fanboy fervor hidden, not wanting to be “that guy”. But it had been weeks and I had to know.
“So you’ve seen it?”
“Yeah - I mean, I’m a musical theater nerd and a Placer, so it was basically inevitable. But that’s a huge install, and I’ve run the numbers. It was way more Coin than you should have been able to afford.”
She smiled. “Yes… Yes it was.”
“So how’d you do it?”
“Well, I got lucky I guess. I was a huge fan of Hamilton when it was big a few years back… what was that, 9 years ago? Anyway, I’d visited Hamilton’s grave down at Trinity Church and his house uptown with my dad when I was a kid - I was totally obsessed - and once I started to get some Coin together, I wanted to do something amazing there. On a lark I sent a note to Lin Manuel. He wrote me back that day.”
“Yup. Turns out he’s a huge nerd. He bought up a bunch of PlaceCoin in the ICO, and was just kind of sitting on it.” Sam said.
“Wow. Who knew he’d be into PlaceCoin - I figured you did a partnership with him and some investors or something, but I didn’t think he’d have any clue what it was.”
“It took us forever to put together the install and Lin kept asking all these technical questions. I think he’s working on an AR musical now that you can perform anywhere you can stake enough territory to make a stage. The actors and NPCs interact with the sets, backdrops and even some effects.”
“Cool.” I could picture it. “Like Shakespeare in the park, but anywhere.”
“Exactly - we were also talking about a doing a version of Hamilton where NPCs act out everything except the role you want to play, so you can pretend to be right in the heart of the action. But we were having trouble getting the choreography to work without real set pieces and other human actors, so we shelved it. That’s when I started on this.”
“Oh man, that sounds amazing. And hilarious. Could you imagine walking up into a field without your glasses on, and guy is just dancing around and belting out showtunes? I mean it would be...”
“Will.” Sam interrupted. “Will!”
I aimed my controller at the street next to her and closed my eyes as I jumped, pointing my cursor at her feet and instantly appearing next to her. There were perks to working on the virtual version of the installation in VR, if you could get over the potential nausea.
“Look at this” she said, stretching her hands apart in front of her and placing a terminal in front of us in mid-air.
I watched as the screen enlarged until I could read what she was bringing up, and even then I had trouble making sense of it. She had the blockchain ledger for PlaceCoin up tailing recent transactions. Normally that would be nearly impossible to follow in real time, but I could see she had it filtered to a one meter radius around our installation. And it was still going by impossibly fast.
“What the...?” I said, watching the purchases happen in flurries.
“We’re under attack” she said, watching as someone, or more likely lots of someone’s, bought every possible gap, edge, and weak-spot in our massive land grab. Sam had bots fighting back, buying the spots back up as quick as she could, but she was going broke quickly trying to fight them off.
“Oh shit.” I said, watching as the onslaught continued. I could see where this was going. Her install was going to be ruined, covered in some stupid pharma ads. Or worse. Someone had decided that they wanted in on her publicity stunt and was trying to horn in. “Alright. I’m in. What radius are you buying?”
“I’ve got a polygon covering 1 meter back from the facade of every storefront from Union Square up Broadway to Madison Square.”
“Okay,” I said, drawing the same slanted rectangle on a map along broadway on a virtual terminal I’d brought up in front of my own avatar. I set up purchase rules, max bid per spot, and a filter so I wouldn’t bet against Sam’s account ID as quick as my fingers could type. But I could see we were already losing the battle as I glanced at the ownership graph. I had my spots in blue, Sam’s in green, and anyone else in red, and the red was seeping in like a virus.
There would be a limit to what we could do together and I looked at my account balance for a second. If we lost this, we’d hold a patchwork of worthless Places along the middle of Broadway, with no coherent story, and upvotes would be few and far between. No upvotes meant no return on the Coin we’d invested. We’d both be right back at the beginning of our careers, with a handful of Coin if we were lucky and no momentum. I looked at Sam and hit buy before I had too long think about what I was doing.
“Whoa” Sam said, as the map hovering between us flooded blue momentarily. “Jesus, Will, that’s all your Coin! You don’t have to do that.”
“We’ve worked too hard on this, I’m not letting them ruin it. Besides, they haven’t seen anything yet. That’s just what I’ve got liquid. Let’s see how deep their pockets really are.”
I triggered some sales on choice spots I’d been squatting on in touristy areas. I’d developed a knack for putting helpful info right where people needed it and the return on the Coin had been good, they were lucrative spots.. A few sales later, and I was back in the black. My bots surged again, and chased out another wave of red sneaking in around the corners.
Each back-and-forth in the war was shrinking the radius of the multitude of Places we held and the map was looking more and more fractured, but the doubling of costs on the bigger plots seemed to have priced out the invading swarm after a few trades. We held most of Madison Square and focused the fight on Union Square now.
“They keep outbidding me on Washington’s Statue. I can’t afford it without taking down something major - I’m going to have to shut down Hamilton down to keep this up” she said.
Losing Hamilton would be a blow, as it was her main driver of upvotes and working capital, not to mention it and was a huge tourist attraction now. The community would be furious if it blipped out of existence and became a Starbucks ad.
“Okay, I can still take it” I said, selling off a few more tracts of land I’d speculated on north of Westchester, hoping that self-driving cars would extend suburban sprawl more than they had so far. I had a more immediate need for the Coin now.
I winced as I manually keyed the okay to take Washington’s statue, and started to sweat as I did the math in a command prompt I pulled up. 2048 PLC. At today’s exchange rate, that would be 512 ETH, or about a $128,000 dollars. I knew my total holdings were a bit shy of a million, and I couldn’t make much more liquid without losing everything and reneging on a bunch of contracts I had with groups like MoMath to keep installs up for them.
My little hero move wasn’t going work, and I could feel my heart sinking.
We were going to lose.
“I know.” she said, still frantically working the controls in front of her, snapping up as many of the gaps as she could. Then she was out of Coin too.
Suddenly, Washington’s statue turned red on the map again.
“What?!” I heard her shriek next to me, and I saw it too. 4096 PLC. Someone had just dropped a quarter of a million cash on that spot, the most expensive buy I’d ever seen, even in Times Square. We snapped up the gaps around it, but it was futile. They quickly started to flip red again.
“We’re going to need help.” I heard myself say, and I started to pull up a terminal window.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, our plan has to change. We’ve have to go public now. Put the install up, show people what we’re trying to do, and what these trolls are trying to pull.”
Sam made one more big purchase, locking up the intersection at 16th and Broadway, and that was it. She was out of options unless she sold everything she’d worked on before. She hesitated.
I keyed in a few triggers and started the deployment. Within a few minutes, each of the root nodes of the Coin we held was populated. As the transactions propagated, we could see the experience go live in the virtual world around us. I pulled off my VR headset, looking at the real-world Sam standing in my small apartment arms outstretched, watching the world inside the glasses.
“Sam” I said. “Let’s go see it live. Even if It’s just for a minute.”
She pulled off her VR headset, the impression of the light-blocking foam leaving a red mark around her cheeks. She nodded, we grabbed our gear, and started across town.
“I forgot that it was daytime!” I said, blinking at the early afternoon sun as we walked down 14th st. We’d been working in VR on the nighttime set, and it was jarring to return to a real world so different than the one we'd just inhabited. I'd remarked many times as we built Sam's installation - our installation now, I guess - on how much of the city was the same. So many of the buildings survived the ages, and even when they didn’t, their footprints endured and the invisible lines of real estate acted like force fields as new buildings grew in their place, taller and brighter.
We walked in silence until we came to the park.
People were pouring out of their offices and looking out their windows. I hadn’t realized what a stir this would create. We were standing amid the crowd now, and turned on our glasses.
We’d just unveiled the largest PlaceCoin installation in the world, and it was slowly crumbling in front of our eyes, and in front of the eyes of all the New Yorkers who were coming out to see. We could hear people ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the details, looking at the ways we’d changed the facades of the stores and the different shapes of the skyline around the park.
Sam looked up at me and smiled, and we heard the crowd gasp, sounding like a cross between a 4th of July fireworks audience and an angry mob. We looked in their direction, and the big banner hanging above the north end of Union Square to announce the electric lighting ceremony disappeared piece by piece as the patchwork of Places underneath it were bought out from under us. In their place, the worst of the internet emerged. A disgusting pastiche of memes, swastikas, dickbutts, and worse spewed forth from the dark corners of the internet. This was a huge, coordinated attack by well funded trolls, bots, and hate mongers, and people were getting pissed.
“Sam. We’ve gotta use this. We need help, and these people are pissed off that someone’s destroying what we just built before they even get to see it. You need to get a message out.”
She thought for a moment. I assumed she was worried about exposing herself to the internet masses - she already got enough hate mail just for having Girl in her name - then she just nodded.
“I’ll film” I said, nodding back at her as she climbed up onto a concrete block at the corner of the park. In my glasses, I could see the install behind her, partially damaged, and continuing to blink out of existence as we watched.
“Okay. Here goes” she said, and I pointed at her silently, to indicate that I was now streaming live through my glasses. “Hello internet. My name is Sam, but you probably know me as HistoryGirl. I’m standing in the middle of what was supposed to be the biggest and most ambitious AR installation in the history of PlaceCoin. I’ve spent the last year quietly gathering up the Places between Union Square and Madison Square Park to create a historical reenactment of the first run of electric lighting in New York, from the year 1880. Every corner, every storefront, every building has been restored to period in the experience, and as many of you guessed, I’ve been working with Will White to integrate my historical reenactment experience into his experience which digs deeper into the science and math of early electrical systems in partnership with the Museum of Math.”
“We’ve worked hard to bring this to life so everyone with a pair of AR glasses can explore the city as it was almost 150 years ago. But now, something has gone wrong. An army of trolls is buying up all of our places to ruin the installation and we’ve spent every Coin we have trying to fight them off. We’re broke and they just keep coming. Someone behind them has deep pockets.”
“So we’re calling on all of you. We need your help. PlaceCoin exists so that we can share free and open information integrated with the world around us. Information not controlled by Apple, Google, or Snap, but created by the people, for the people.”
“Every day detractors and pundits claim that PlaceCoin shouldn’t be part of the default experience on glasses. That the PlaceCoin community can’t be trusted to govern the information around us. We’ve proven them wrong before, and it’s time to do it again. Help us stand up to trolls and hate groups. Help us create something ambitious, beautiful, and amazing for everyone to share. We’re here in Union Square, live right now, fighting for what we’ve built. I hope you’ll join us, even if it’s just tonight before it’s all destroyed.”
Behind me, I heard a yell, and I startled, shaking the camera view along with my vision. I turned quickly, and saw that while she spoke, Samantha had gathered a crowd 100 people. They shouted in unison, and I smiled in amazement at the sound and suddenness of it.
I gestured to stop the video and looked back at Sam, and she was smiling too. Win or lose, we were going to fight for this.
I heard a chime in my earpiece, and saw the notification at the top right of my vision. I’d just been given control of a root node. Just a small one along the periphery, but someone had staked it with their own Coin and then given me control.
I looked over at Sam, and recognized the same thousand-yard stare. She was reading notifications as well, and they kept streaming in. The community was fighting back.
I climbed up on top of the concrete traffic-control block that Sam had perched on, and took my place next to her, as we’d been for the last few weeks. We set up a control center of screens in a half-circle around us and made them public so anyone could see them, trailing the latest transactions and showing the map of control as well as a heat-map of latest activity. We made community-controlled Places on the map Blue-Green, a mix of our two colors, and the map was starting to change back.
The battle raged into the evening. From the recesses of the internet, the trolls had decided to make this stand, and they were getting the attention and publicity they craved. But they were also losing.
While Sam and I worked, back to back, to purchase what we could and install the experience on nodes which had been bequeathed to us. Upvotes on the installs we had were pouring in, giving us more Coin to work with, as we worked, the crowd settled in as a type of encampment around us. Placers came in all different shapes and sizes, and we were surrounded by young and old, people in business suits and kids coming out of school. A few people had even dressed in old-timey costume or steampunk regalia, looking much like the NPCs that now wandered the streets among us as long as the install was up.
By dusk, it was clear. The tide had turned, and we were going to win. The crowd, both here and online, was downvoting the invaders en-masse, and that cost them real Coin and shrunk their places.
Sam and I pooled our own Coin into a consortium account along with everything we’d made in upvotes that day, and opened the account for contributions. By dusk, we knew the simulated sun towers would come on, brilliantly lighting the installation, and the NPC mayor would begin the lighting ceremony. We timed it perfectly, and at exactly that moment we repurchased the statue of Washington at the south end of the park.
I heard the cheer erupt from two blocks away and work it’s way north, and turned to Sam. We’d done it. Even at the edges of the install, the little incursions of red on the map were being stamped out by the community, and in the battle, the prices had been run up so high that it was unlikely that anyone would be able to afford to give us any trouble for a long time to come. In the meantime, the kerfuffle had gotten Sam a live spot on Cheddar from the front of the FlatIron (which now found itself surrounded by our installation), and the Curbed article had front-paged on Reddit and every other internet news source by dusk. Half a dozen Placer live streams were covering the event both in person and from VR, and the internet’s eyes were on us.
Sam turned towards me and I couldn’t think off anything less-cheesy to say than “we did it” so I just smiled at her.
Disembodied, I heard the crowd cheer, and at some point, I must’ve stumbled off the traffic block with her, because the next thing I knew we were walking hand-in-hand up Broadway among the crowd, looking up at the lights, and marveling at the stars behind them.
“Sam, this is....” I trailed off.
"You can say it."
“This is... magnificent."
"You're going to make a *lot* of money.”
"I've already made a lot of money. What I want now is a lot of upvotes, and a lot of Coin. What I've got planned next is even bigger."