At SXSW 2018, I was invited to take part in a four-day immersive story experience called a SimuLife. Mounted by the Austin-based creative lab Interactive Deep Dive, SimuLife is meant to blur the line between fantasy and reality by letting me interact with the story as part of daily life. It’s like David Fincher’s movie The Game, executed in the real world. Other than those broad edicts, I wasn’t given any advance information about the experience. I’m documenting my journey through the story — wherever it leads.
The story starts with Part 1: I’m a transdimensional dopplegänger.
The morning before I met Max and his group of anti-tech anarchists, I received a text. It was sent by someone named Kai, from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hi! Things are looking good, but I could use your advice,” he wrote, followed by a time and place for a meeting later that afternoon.
I wrote him back, wishing him good morning and asking what he was texting about. The response came instantly: “Ha! Funny Bishop — how about you read my mind.”
Two things stood out about the texts right away. Early on, before I’d been formally invited to take part in this story experience, I was told there would be certain windows when the story wouldn’t be active, times where I knew I’d be able to check out screenings, file stories, or visit HBO’s immersive Westworld installation. That particular morning, the story wasn’t supposed to be active until 10AM — yet I’d received this strange text from Kai at 9:45AM.
The other element was sound — or the lack thereof. Since the story started, I’d learned that every time I swapped into the OpenMind timeline, there would be a now-familiar warbling noise. I hadn’t heard it that morning, which meant I should be in my normal timeline, the one where I’m a journalist for The Verge. (I probably should have been concerned that I was literally wondering what dimension I was in, but when you’re this deep in an immersive experience, these kinds of things can start to feel normal.) In his text, Kai referred to me as Bishop, the name everyone uses for the creator of OpenMind. So what was going on here?
Later that afternoon, I headed to the meeting spot: a branch of the Austin public library. There was nobody there to meet me, but a pedicab was waiting. A quick text to Kai confirmed that I was meant to take that pedicab, so I climbed on board.
When you cover a festival or conference like SXSW, you normally operate within a fairly limited physical footprint. You hit the same convention center and the same few screening locations, and that tends to be it. So I was delighted when the pedicab driver took me south onto the bridge over the Colorado River, with a glorious view on either side. The wind was bracing, but it was a reminder of the sheer physicality of the experience I was taking part in. I wasn’t in a theater watching someone else have an adventure; I was actually out in the real world, living it myself, seeing parts of a city I might never encounter otherwise.
One of those places I would never think to visit is a miniature train ride. Yet when the pedicab driver came to our destination at Zilker Park, that’s exactly where we were: beside a tiny train called the Zilker Zephyr. Kai was waiting for me, a big, bearded guy with a prominent black eye. I asked him what had happened. He laughed, assuming I was joking; I’d been there when he got it, he said.
The same feeling of unease from the morning hit me once again. People expecting me to know things I didn’t remember was something I associated with the OpenMind timeline, but I still hadn’t heard the familiar sound cue. Perhaps I’d missed it.
He suggested we go for a ride on the train — it was one of his favorite places to sit and think, he told me — so we sat down, and he offered me a lollipop. Then Kai told me that he’d received some preliminary research on the business deal we were working on together, and he handed me an envelope.
It was an email and a series of market research charts, detailing how his company, Goodwin Communications, had acquired the OpenMind technology, and how it was going to use it in conjunction with an Austin-based startup called MyVox. The larger business goal was to take advantage of the FCC’s recent repeal of net neutrality to introduce a curated version of the internet, one that would use OpenMind’s thought recognition technology to filter out extremist thought, dissident views, and cybercrime. Its name: NicerNet.
And his black eye? That came courtesy of a MyVox employee named Ruben Kirby, who had full-on assaulted Kai when he’d learned that OpenMind was involved.
My mind was reeling. The ethical implications of this kind of censorship were obvious, but according to the market research, customers were eager for an internet free of fake news and cyberbullying — and they were more than willing to pay for it. But none of it made sense. How could Goodwin Communications have purchased OpenMind when a deal with Cooter & Cooter was supposedly pending, and why was Bishop involved, when he’d supposedly been booted from the company last year?
I asked Kai about both points, and he seemed confused. I was the only person in charge of OpenMind, he said, and he’d never even heard of Cooter & Cooter.
I tried to parse what was happening. I could have jumped to a third timeline, on top of the other two I’d already been pinging between, and perhaps in this one, Bishop was still in control of OpenMind’s destiny. It was the only thing that made sense.
Then Kai hit me with another revelation: he told me that OpenMind’s partnership with Meow Wolf at SXSW was going great, that the company’s fun image was really going to help polish the OpenMind brand, and that the sponsorship had been my idea all along.
To back up a little bit, Meow Wolf is an immersive company based in Santa Fe, best known for its massive, interactive exhibit House of Eternal Return. A documentary about the company — Meow Wolf: Origin Story — is screening here at the festival, and Meow Wolf is also hosting a number of brand activations in Austin this week, including a massive scavenger hunt. Early on, I’d been told that the interactive story experience I’d be taking part of was being developed in conjunction with Meow Wolf, but other than some planned meetings with a producer that never ended up happening, I’d only been dealing with the world of OpenMind. But Kai was telling me that the brand activations that were happening here, in my own timeline, were actually being sponsored by a company I thought didn’t even exist here. And sure enough, the proof was on Meow Wolf’s own website. The cognitive dissonance was overwhelming.
Was I in the middle of some massive, interdimensional bleedthrough? Had the swapping that started with me begun to branch out to include the festival itself? My meeting with Kai had upended my basic understanding of what I was experiencing, and something dark echoed inside my heart for the first time: fear.
Our train ride came to an end, and we went our separate ways. I sat down on a nearby park bench to sort things out, when my phone lit up with an incoming call.
On Saturday, before I first met Dr. Everett, Paige and I had run into a woman named Marilyn who had lost her phone. She’d asked to borrow mine so she could call herself; she suspected her phone was in the depths of her purse. I let her make the call, thinking nothing of it, but here she was, calling me out of the blue.
I picked up. Marilyn introduced herself again and said she’s reached out because her brother was looking for a journalist to talk to. He had gotten into an altercation with a tech executive recently, she said, and had an internet privacy-related matter that he was eager to discuss with someone. Her brother’s name was Ruben Kirby — the same man that had assaulted Kai.
We made plans to meet the following night for dinner, but I was still trying to make sense of what was going on. The call from Marilyn proved that both Ruben Kirby and Kai were based here, in my own timeline, but I still couldn’t grasp how OpenMind was involved and had established such a big presence in my world.
I texted Paige, the only person I could confide in. Her response was so simple and obvious I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.
“Well you’ve been going back and forth a lot — maybe Bryan the 2nd met with him during one of the switches?” she wrote. “If Bryan 2 is going back and forth, he must have a reason.”
There’s that stomach-turn moment in Fight Club, when Edward Norton’s character Jack realizes that he’s been running around as Tyler Durden the entire movie, causing mischief. That’s the best way I can describe the queasy shock that hit me at that moment. And a quick text to Kai confirmed it.
Kai had first met Bishop two weeks ago. After being kicked out of his own company in December, Bishop must have decided to take his technology here, coming to our dimension and cutting deals to spread OpenMind. He’d even managed to rope Meow Wolf into it.
In an instant, I realized that Bishop was more than just a poor, misguided genius. He was a dimension-hopping existential threat who was about to inflict the same damage on our world that he had already inflicted on his own.
And I was the only person in a position to stop him.
Join us for the next installment of The SimuLife Diaries, where I have to decide whether to accept a billion-dollar offer to sell OpenMind to the megacorp Cooter & Cooter.