Robert Wexler arrived at home, fixed himself a quick burger, changed into a well-worn sweat suit, and put on a pot of coffee. He fired up his old but functional terminal, poured a mug of joe, and settled in to do some research on dreamgaming.
The technology, including hardware, software, middleware, and databases was developed by a team of fifteen engineers and systems people on the west coast about thirty-five years ago. They had been working on training simulations for pilots and crews flying ore haulers through asteroid patches. In their spare time, they put together a game simulation for entertainment.
The game simulation expanded into several games, and then broadened to include the use of avatars. When the crew of computer and electronics people found a way to actually put a person inside of the avatar, they were onto something. SimPlay Corporation, a designer and manufacturer of gaming simulations, took an interest and made a very, very generous offer to the team for the rights to their product. Ten members of the team accepted the offer; five refused. SimPlay, with its deep pockets, hired the five, formed a wholly owned subsidiary called DreamGame, Inc., and put the five in charge of R and D. When Dreamgaming exploded, it made the original five and their families wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations.
Twenty-five years ago, DreamGame, Inc. left the computer lab and was opened to the general gaming public. They opened three salons: one in Philadelphia, one in New York, and one in Boston. After about two months, the salons had given the company a money tree. DreamGaming opened stores along the east and west coasts, put salons in Japan, France, China, and parts of Africa. As the popularity of the game increased, they slowly opened stores in the smaller cities. The stores sold the computers, hook-ups, wiring, and accessories so one could dreamgame in the privacy of their home without going to a salon. The gear was expensive, but if an individual intended to make a hobby of dreamgaming, it was a whole lot cheaper, over the course of a year, than the one standard dollar a minute the salons charged.
Wexler checked the train times and then checked his bank account. Even though his lifestyle and appearance had gone downhill since his demotion and divorce, his bank account had not. His frugal living had left him with a ton of cash. He could easily afford a few weeks, at salon prices, of Dreamgaming. He shut off his terminal. He would catch the train in Media tomorrow for the ride to Center City.
Bob Wexler boarded the train for the ride to Center City, Philadelphia, at 9:30 a.m. sharp. Commuter trains were still commuter trains. He had a seventy-minute ride, with the train stopping every five or ten minutes. Bob was in no hurry; he had three more days besides this one to work his investigation.
The Media Local arrived in Center City about three minutes ahead of schedule. Bob had written down his directions to the salon: exit through the east doors, turn north on Broad St., go two blocks, and the DreamGame building should be on the left. The directions were accurate. The steel-and-glass, ten-story structure was right where it should be. Over the ground floor entrance to the salon was a lime-green neon sign that said, simply, "DreamGame, Inc."
Wexler entered the salon and looked about. There were racks displaying terminals and computers, racks with gear, and, along the walls, video displays showing various dreamgaming simulations. He focused on one that appeared to be Sinbad and the Arabian Nights. The realism of the display amazed him; he had no idea technology had gone this far. He got startled when a young man approached and addressed him.
"Hello, Sir, and a good morning. My name is Harold. First time here?"
Bob looked at the young man with a detective's eye. He was in his early twenties, trim, clean-shaven, and not a hair out of place. He wore black loafers, navy pants, a pale-blue short sleeve dress shirt with a button-down collar, and a black tie with "DreamGame" in bright gold across the middle.
"Yeah, it is," said Bob. "Bob Wexler's the name. What's this all about, Harold?"
"Well, Mr. Wexler," replied Harold, with a nice smile, "Dreamgaming is the fastest growing role-play simulation around. And, I may be a bit prejudiced, but I believe it is the most advanced and the most rewarding. Mr. Wexler, have you ever tried any simulated role-play?"
"Not really, no," said Bob. "I know what it's about. I've just never wanted to try it for some reason. Maybe I will now. Care to give me some details? Oh, and call me Bob."
"Well, Bob," began Harold, "you can be anything you want in role-play. A wild west cowboy? A crusader knight? An explorer flying a starship? That simulation you were watching, the mythical Arabian Nights, is quite popular. You can be any character you want to be. The choice is yours."
"Any restrictions, Harold?"
"Just one," said Harold. "Men have to be men, and women have to be women. So, if you wanted to be Helen of Troy, or Joan of Arc, well, we couldn't allow it. However, you could be your own version of Sinbad or Richard the Lionheart. It's all up to you."
"Fill me in a bit more, Harold."
"Well, Sir," Harold continued, "we have three levels of gaming. All three put you right inside of your avatar, as if you are actually living the experience. The first level is the goggles and headphones."
Here Harold guided Wexler to a rack with various models of strange looking sets of eyeglasses. The lenses were all opaque and the frames black. Connected to the backs of the earpieces were earplugs. Two wires ran from the rear of the glasses and terminated in jacks.
"Now, Bob," said Harold, as he grabbed a pair and gave them to Wexler to hold, "you put these on and plug them into a lounger we have here at the salon. If you have one of our terminals or computers at home, you plug into that. You go to your sim, as we call it, and role-play. Everything is fairly real. However, you cannot taste or smell. In addition, if you are in a combat sim and get killed or wounded, you really don't feel anything."
"What happens if I am killed or wounded?"
"You don't really die," said Harold, with a grin. "You just cannot login for forty-eight hours."
"The next level," Harold continued, showing Wexler a headset with some pads that would press on the temples, "is called Level II. These pads stimulate the temporal lobes. It gives you a bit more sensation. Food tastes like food and wine tastes like wine. You also experience some sexual pleasure with these. If you're in a fight, you will feel some pain when injured."
"What's Level III?"
Harold guided Wexler to a rack on the wall with unitards and hoods in a variety of colors and styles. There were goggles and headphones to match.
"A full, custom-fitted, sensory suit, Sir," said Harold. "All tastes, smells, touches, and sensations are available with these. These are expensive and we only recommend them for experienced, hard-core gamers. Most customers who have the suits have their own complete rigs set up at home."
"Okay," said Bob, "now we get to the good part. How much does this stuff cost?"
"Normally," said Harold, smiling, "the fee is one standard dollar a minute. For potential new customer, such as you, we offer 3000 minutes for 1000 dollars. That's a nice discount. When you use this package up, we have other packages available if you decide to stay with us. If you really want to game, the packages offer a nice reduction in the basic price and are well worth it. If you are just a casual gamer, the base package is the best buy. Interested, Sir?"
"Yeah, I think so," said Bob. "I can afford your introductory package. Let me get a coffee somewhere and think on it."
"Okay, Bob," said Harold, smiling and handing Wexler a business card. "I have lunch from 11:30 to 12:30. If you come in then, just show the card to someone else. After 12:30, just ask for me. Okay?"
The two shook hands and Wexler left DreamGame and headed to a deli around the corner. He had a sandwich and two cups of coffee. He spent a lot of time thinking this over. Was he going the right way with this? His detective intuition told him that he was. At 12:35, he found himself walking through the doors of DreamGame, Inc., with Harold's business card in his right hand.