PlaceCoin, a Narrative (Part 1)

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.

"Hey!"

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.

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“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!”

Shit.

"Holy shit. You're HistoryGirl?"

Silence.

"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.

"You’re buying".

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."

"Really?"

"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.

This story is continued in PlaceCoin - Part two