Short Story: Getting Somewhere

Background: This December I decided to write some Scientific Fiction as an exercise in exploring different futures and how to communicate them. This story was sparked by @ArndtPechstein, who presented the results of the Berlin team for the Audi Urban Future 2014 initiative in an awesome interactive lecture about biomimicry. There are also some thoughts in here around game design for autonomous cars, sparked by Jesse Schell.

The bell rang and a horde of kids stormed out of the building and across the schoolyard. A row of autonomous flywheel vehicles already waited for them at the entrance. All of them shaped like upright, white pills, about 2.5m high and 1.20m wide. One by one they rolled up to the gate, waiting to be boarded. The kids formed a chaotic line with the traffic wardens trying their best to coordinate them.

After a short while it was Tim’s turn to step up to the next available flywheel. The side membrane opened, revealing a single comfortable beige seat. Tim climbed into the flywheel and got comfortable as the membrane closed. The personal assistant on his mobile took over control of the flywheel and Tim’s personal Avatar showed up on the center window as the flywheel slowly rotated away from the schoolyard to make room for the next flywheels.

“To Mirco!” Tim told the Avatar. It nodded, then showed the profile picture of Tim’s best friend.
“Please confirm that you want to go to Mirco Minello, please,” the voice of the avatar asked.
“Yeah,” Tim confirmed and the flywheel accelerated onto the city lane.

The Avatar came back on the center console. “I see that Mirco is still waiting for a flywheel. Also, your friend Alex is also going to Mirco and he is on the slow track, waiting for you both. Do you want to wait for them?” it asked.
“Sure,” Tim confirmed. The flywheel decelerated again onto the slow track as it communicated with the other personal assistants. Tim looked out of the transparent side membranes at the passing city.
“Alex?” he asked into the cabin. The personal assistant made an assumption and patched him through to his friend in the other flywheel.
“What’s up, Tim? I’m idling here, you coming?” he heard Alex voice.
“Yeah, on the slow track waiting for Mirco. Wanna play?”
“Sure,” his friend responded.
“Start Mario Kart!” he instructed his assistant.
“Starting Mario Kart,” the voice from the console confirmed. There was a quick negotiation between the game console in Tim’s bag and the flywheel controls, then the walls and center window became opaque, showing the game logo.
“Do you want to enable motion feedback?” the voice asked.
“Yes!” Tim confirmed. This would synchronize the flywheel to the game so that it would use its gyros (usually keeping the cabin upright) to mimic the motion in the game. Not so strong to interfere with driving, but good enough to offset motion sickness.
“Motion feedback active. Be advised, this prevents the use of fast-track lanes,” the assistant informed him. No matter as Tim didn’t want to leave the city anyway.

Tim chose his hero and cart, then both negotiated a track. Just as they were ready to start Mirco patched himself into their channel. “Wait for meeeeeee!” he yelled.
All three started racing, throwing bombs and bananas, laughing as their flywheels rolled across the city scape.

While the kids finished their round of Mario Kart, the three flywheels maneuvered next to each other, synchronized speeds, slowly approached each other and docked. The membranes between them opened and a surface extended between their seats to form a table. The three now effectively sat in a tube together. The game shrank into the center console as the membrane walls retracted and the kids dismissed it.
Immediately they started chatting about their plans for the afternoon.

Suddenly they were interrupted by Tims assistant. “Tim, your mother is reminding you that you promised to come home today and take care of Annie.”
“Aw, can’t you tell her I want to play with Mirco and Alex? Pleeease?”
The assistant went quiet and the kids exchanged glances. “That sucks,” Alex finally said.
“Yeah, I forgot mom has to be somewhere and I need to take care of my little sister,” Tim admitted.
“Your mom is not happy about that. She will override controls if you don’t change the destination to home,” the assistant said after a while.
There was a quick exchange of glances and the other two boys shrugged. “Can’t Annie wheel to Mirco, too? She can play with us!” Tim offered.
After another 30 seconds or so that felt like forever the assistant relayed the answer. “She’s still not entirely happy, but that works for her. Annie will take a wheel in about half an hour and arrive at around 2:30. She also said you both must be home at 7. Not around 7, not leave at 7, be home at 7. A flywheel will be waiting for you at around 6:37, depending on the current traffic.”
“Yay! Thanks, mom!” The avatar on the center window nodded and vanished.

The boys continued to make plans for the day, but again they were interrupted, this time by Mircos assistant. “Excuse me, but the flywheel is asking if you could share a ride with Alex so it can be used otherwise.”
“Alright,” Mirco said and he climbed from the left flywheel over into Alex’ one in the middle. Once he stowed away his bag and was sitting properly, the membrane wall closed and the third flywheel separated. After it gained some distance it sped away.

The two connected flywheels continued onto the city highway. The center screens showed a remaining time of 16 minutes.
“I’m bored,” proclaimed Mirco. The other sighed approvingly.
“How about a game of Road Jumper? It does not require motion feedback and you all could play it, “ Mircos assistant picked up the hint.
The boys exchanged glanced and shrugged. “Yeah, OK,” Mirco confirmed. Each digital assistant came up and asked their owners if they wanted to use their personal profiles. After confirming their individual player characters appeared, running next to the flywheel. With subtle movements and leaning each could control their character and make them run around other flywheels, jump over them with crazy acrobatic tricks like spins and grabs for more points. Multiplayer-combos acted as point multipliers. A lot of leaning, nudging and pointing was happening in the cabins. The kids were concentrating on their characters, acting in the immediate environment around the car, matching the movements and inertia, with the game cleverly avoiding motion sickness. 10 minutes later the flywheel left the city highway, slowing down into the residential area. The game integrated the arrival count down, ending another round and presenting the final scores.

The flywheels stopped in front of Mircos apartment complex and opened their membranes. As the boys jumped out and ran to the entrance, the flywheels closed their membranes, separated and one by one rolled away to their next assignments.

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Dirk Songuer

Living in Berlin / Germany, working at Microsoft, loving technology, society, good food, well designed games and this world in general. Views are mine, k?