21. Imaginary Friend
Amidst all the press given to New Idaho as the “City of the Century”, people often forgot to give credit to the burgeoning tech industry in Omaha, Nebraska.
Though some place the beginning of its growth period as early as the 2010s, Omaha seriously took off toward the tail end of the ‘20s. Young adults living there often said the city was ripe for immigration, if only the rest of the state would “get with the times”. In 2026, the state, evidently, did get with the times, becoming the 38th state to legalize marijuana and providing no excuse for millennials and Gen Zers not to move to the growing city in America’s heartland.
As with the most of the other major cities in the country at this time, most of Omaha’s wealth came from it’s growing tech industry, specifically in areas of Virtual Reality. Among some other relatively successful, though less interesting, B2B Virtual Applications, Omaha finally found it’s Lex Lucid in Eric Phillips, the CEO and Founder of Imaginary Friend, a 2028 start-up that continued to grow into a multi-national corporation and one of the most-downloaded apps on the Virtual Market.
As a 2028 company, Imaginary Friend started as a little AI experiment, attempting to add a visual element to the AI chat-bots that had populated livestreams and group messaging apps throughout the 2010s. The first iteration of the app included a few pop-culture characters that partner organizations agreed to develop with the start-up, in addition to a crude (compared to modern-day) avatar generator. The characters/avatars moved realistically in the virtual world and learn to converse with you as you put more time into the app.
The multi-siloed marketing tactics of the Imaginary Friend Corporation (IFC) were part of the genius that made the technology so relevant. Of course, the most obvious audience was children, and Phillips certainly focused on this safe bet. Children could now hang out with some of their favorite cartoon characters and practice making friends with avatars of their own creation.
The next audience Phillips marketed to was young adults in their 20s and 30s. These young adults were attempting to make their way in the world, learning to communicate. Phillips chose to include job interview simulations and programmed the AI for some common difficult conversations. This sort of conversational capability made Imaginary Friend a practical application to use when deciding how to breach a certain topic or have a certain conversation for the first time. Are you practicing a proposal? IFC can help. Breaking some hard news to your parents or children? IFC had it covered. By marketing the practical uses of the application, Phillips was able to broaden his audience to include these young adults, which naturally expanded to older adults once they saw the proven therapeutic capabilities of the software.
The last, and most difficult, audience to penetrate was teenagers. Phillips was aware of the danger of losing the childhood portion of his audience as they aged out of the lovable cartoon characters pre-programmed into the software. Once these children aged out, it would be harder to retain them as adults. Phillips’ answer to this conundrum was to include appropriate and clever retorts to any of the inappropriate and crude remarks that teens were bound to make to the software. As he had expected, this gave the software a hip factor that teens could vibe with. It wasn’t the perfect marketing strategy, but from what Phillips could tell, it slowed the drop off considerably (and of course there were plenty of teens who extended their childhood use of Imaginary Friend in secret).
Though the virtual app was successfully used for playtime and therapeutic conversations, its stationary nature, like all Virtual Applications, kept it from expanding very far. It wasn’t until 2035, with the advent of Imaginary Friend AR that IFC really took off and became the behemoth it is today.
Through augmented reality, IFC was able to integrate all of its improvements and advancements in avatar creation and character selection with the Lucid Lens to offer a friend that would follow you around for any adventure. This was a game-changer—no longer did kids have to stay secluded in one room to play with their Imaginary Friend. Now, if they had Lenses, they could take their Imaginary Friend to school, recess, the grocery store, and anywhere else they could think of. Not to mention, the wireless communication between Lenses made it easy for groups to share the same Imaginary Friend.
The upgrade was an immediate hit. Having an Imaginary Friend in AR was more realistic, and being able to share them with your friends made for endless games and permutations. Young adults would waste time trying to compete for the attention of a beautiful Imaginary Female in a safe, competitive practice of seduction. Children would entertain themselves for hours on end on the playground with their favorite cartoon characters and heroes. Entrepreneurs went on walks to bounce ideas off their custom avatar. Performers used various AI personalities as audiences. Writers created their own focus groups.
From 2035 to 2054, Imaginary Friend scaled into the gigantic corporation it is known as today. IFC expanded its service to offer different Imaginary Friend Packs for purchase and began to host large-scale Imaginary Friend conferences and events. Though New Idaho remained the most interesting city in the country, Omaha quickly became one of the most popular (New Idaho was still being a bit too isolated and unusual for many to actually move to).
As the use of Imaginary Friends consistently grew, the etiquette used with the software, as with any new technology, went through its own growing period. In the early days of IFAR, a common complaint was that users seemed to be talking to their Imaginary Friends more than their real friends, even in social settings. Critics considered this similar to the advent of Smartphones, when it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of friends scrolling through apps while hanging out or eating dinner together. Just as that practice was eventually socialized out of existence, so was gratuitously hanging out with your Imaginary Friend in public.
Alternatively, the use of Imaginary Girlfriends became more normalized as the software aged. Though IFC still didn’t condone pornographic packs (there was another start-up for that), it wasn’t uncommon for people to create beautiful avatars to hang out with, that many eventually fell in love with. Though this was initially viewed as lonely and pathetic, it soon came to light that there were a great deal of men and women alike who enjoyed the low-stakes companionship they could find in a Virtual Partner. Some critics even argue that real-life intimacy grew as a result, with users gaining valuable practice in engaging with the opposite sex outside of actual, often demoralizing, interactions.
IFC CEO Eric Phillips and Lucid Labs CEO Lex Lucid had become friends in the early ‘30s, and were often in communication, with Phillips visiting the Labs in New Idaho at least once a year. As IFC grew, their partnership with Lucid Labs became even more important as Imaginary Friends were optimized for each new round of Lucid Lenses. Phillips was always present at Lucid Events if he could make it, and Lex Lucid himself lauded Phillips on the effectiveness of Imaginary Friends as sounding boards for ideas, even though Lucid tried, as a minimalist (even in idea-generation) to use them sparingly.
During the Christmas 2054 announcement of Lucidity, however, Phillips had been home in Omaha with his family. Though he doubted he would have gone all the way up to Idaho on Christmas in any case, he was admittedly disappointed when he realized that there had been a Lucid Event without him. He had wondered whether Lex thought IFC was on track to become obsolete, a possibility that had worried Phillips even with the company’s seemingly invincible rise to the top. After seeing the ground-breaking new technology Lex had dreamed up, Phillips was even more disheartened at not being let into the loop sooner.
Thus, when Phillips received a call around 1900h CST that very Christmas, he was happy to hear that Lex still had interest in meeting with him. They worked out a meeting as soon as was convenient for both of them, deciding on a date of 28 December, three days hence.
Lucid put Phillips up in his house on the night of the 27th. They used that time to catch up on what they had been working on, relaxing and reflecting over their past year. 2054 had been great, and 2055 was due to be another big one—now for both of them.
On the 28th, Lucid and Phillips spent all day at the Labs. It turned out that Lucid had planned to eventually work with Phillips on this project all along. During the early stages, the technology was too life-changing to let anyone but the closest teams in on it. Now that it had been announced, however, the Labs were ready to bring Phillips in on development. They had already had one of their in-house engineers working on how best to optimize Lucid Dream for integration with Imaginary Friend. The code was, more or less, there. At this point, he just needed Phillips and his team to dot some i’s and cross some t’s. Phillips, though admittedly slightly put off by the ease of which Lucid could have his team code for IFC, was happy that the ball had been passed to him as an assist. He promised to get his team working on it as fast as possible to finish the layup.
On 3 January, Snow woke up from his last day on Christmas break, brushed his teeth, and opened up his Lucid Dream application. Though initially rather resistant to the idea of putting a brain-reading patch on his head, Snow had quickly become used to it, and had spent more than half of his nights since Christmas recording and enjoying the playback of his dreams. He was starting to understand the utility of being aware of what he dreamed of every night.
This morning, Snow was surprised with an update on his home page. Lucidity had just been announced a week ago, there were only maybe 2000 in the world (at most), and there was already a software update?
Snow’s eye was drawn to a picture in the top corner of the update box. It was a familiar icon—an orange-ish brown figure resembling the “man” often seen on bathroom doors, with his arms raised and his bottom half tapering to a point like an old cartoon of a ghost or genie. The man was outlined in green. It was the icon for Imaginary Friend software. The message read “Would you like to integrate Lucid Dream with Imaginary Friend?” with responses reading “Yes” and “Not Now”.
Snow hadn’t used Imaginary Friend much since his younger teen years. He had used it quite often in the past—as an only child, the ability to have a confidant, no matter how Virtual, was a godsend—but as he grew older, he became more introverted, and he hadn’t felt a need to open the software in ages.
It was still, however, downloaded on his Lenses. Snow thought about the benefits he had noticed after closely reviewing his dreams. He was starting to notice patterns in his own personality. He could feel himself maturing as he inspected these aspects of himself. He wondered if it was time to bring Imaginary Friend back into his life—maybe this time for the therapeutic purposes that he knew many adults used them for. He could see how using one of the characters from his dreams could be a good place to start on that journey. He waved his hand over “Yes,” and a circle of characters, both fantastic and realistic, from all the dreams he had recorded in the past week, appeared in front of him. He was prompted to select one to transfer to Imaginary Friend software.
Snow closed the application. Cool update, he thought. But he would need a little more time to decide if and how he was going to use it.