When you’re doing world-building, strategic foresight, product or service design, or design fictions it can be powerful to start with a very low-fidelity prototype or “thing” from the future.
So how do you build new futures faster than real time to uncover second order effects and explore latent possibilities?
While this approach has been practiced for centuries and designers like Buckminster Fuller, Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy brought their visions to the public at world’s fairs and in films only in the past few decades have people formalized various toolkits and approaches to make it more tractable and provide baby steps for those less literate and fluent in how to begin.
At MAYA”s LUMA Institute we made it a central pillar of our workshops. Another example is by Stuart Candy & Jeff Watson who created the Situation Lab. They have a game that helps you explore “things from the future.” More recently the Near Future Lab released a fun retrospective of their efforts called “The Manual of Design Fiction.”
Below are some examples of initial things, experiences, services, or prototypes of design fictions. These often formed the basis of novel new products or experiences or the early development of intellectual property or patents to define a new space of strategic surprise.
Have paper will prototype
When Bill Lucas, the cofounder and head of curriculum for LUMA Institute taught his son to do rapid prototyping he didn’t expect what happened next. One afternoon William was grounded and sent to his room for playing a video game too much. So he decided to take matters into his own hands and rapidly prototype his own game.
Two ideas formed at an initial ideation session to explore a fun future concept we could build for the upcoming SXSW festival to play with the future of “trending vending.” What if you could take whatever was trending on social media, during the festival, and turn that into an Oreo cookie?
One idea was to launch a test kitchen/milk bar that allowed attendees to design or tune a cookie based on whatever was trending at that moment on social media. Could you “Eat the tweet?”
That initial “thing from the future” was green lighted and we made a prototype in the real world to test out the concept.
Of course along the way we needed to invent a robust Quantified Snack Markup Language (QSML) so that future versions of the micro factory could maintain healthy happy algorithmic joy.
We made two micro factories and ran a year’s worth of design research experiments in a week in front of 10,000 of the snarkiest people in the world at the 2014 SXSW festival.
Sometimes you do something in 24 hours just for fun. In this case during the original ideation session we spent a day with the film makers who created the Transformers movies. That gave us a fun media tie-in idea. What about a home edition of an Oreo Trending Vending robot showing up at the main character’s home to make the kids some cookies?
The makers of Oreo also make Cadbury chocolates, the next year we explored building a joy factory one evening and filmed the results as a provocation.
The Autodesk Learning Engine
Bill Sabram, a brilliant MAYAn alumni, inventor, and legendary game designer helped our team explore how game mechanics might foster desirable difficulties/productive struggles via sensors built into the computer aided design tools and a learning methodology called “dynamic formative assessment.” To help the future of learning team and Autodesk Research coalesce around a shared vision he made a whiteboard prototype film that energized the team and drove a race to build a working prototype and test it at the upcoming Autodesk University customer event.
You can see more about the Learning Engine here.
200 points of light
Sometimes a convincing vision of a future can lead to the formation of an entire company. When the founders of MAYA got together to envision the future of computing they wondered if we could shift from the existing paradigm of folders and a desktop to something different. What if you could order all of your documents like a thousand points of light? What if you could then casually and dynamically query those documents and order them in 3 dimensions? Dr. Peter Lucas built a rapid prototype of their vision using Hypercard and they took it on the road. Soon they had a few millions dollars of commitment and launched MAYA out of CMU. This work and the following efforts around workscape and the combination of these ideas with CMU’s SAGE research into visage and comotion have been cited as seminal embodiments (Test of Time award for Infoviz and later used to defend Apple in patent disputes over “coverflow” and “Time Machine” ) of a paradigm that today you may find in many information visualization systems.
The Student Experience at University of Pittsburgh
Sometimes paper prototyping and storytelling combine to become a handbook for new team mates focused on crafting a consistent experience…
Information Centric Collaborative Whiteboards
In 2008 we explored what an information-centric collaborative white boarding tool would look like for shared video meetings. Before building the software we built a short prototype film to explore and test out the concept.
Sometimes rapid “thing from the future” prototypes are used in a design research method called “Wizard of Oz” prototyping combined with “Think Aloud” sessions. In these cases the prototype is built so that a person (or group of people) can “be” the system and pull the levers to make it work so that we can hear how users of the system form a mental model. Often this approach helps us discover assumptions and learn more deeply about how a given user archetype might expect to engage with the system. The researchers are a bit like the wizard standing behind the curtain pulling all the levers to make the great Oz speak.
Here is another example of think aloud but for a future washing machine…
In this effort, teams taking a LUMA Institute course where challenged with spending a short period of time drawing a “think aloud” prototype. The goal was to imagine “Tivo for the car radio” years before it existed. One of the design researchers watched the participant while they performed key tasks (find a particular show and rewind by a specific amount to find what they were looking for) and if they took their eyes off the road for more than 4 seconds the researcher flashed up a “you crashed” sign.
Little Book of What if?
What if we could enlist a crew of curious festival goers to become living sensors and play a massively parallel game of “What if?” Pepsico was a major sponsor of the SXSW festival and wondered how they could capture the zeitgeist of the moment and create a grand central station where attendees could both share what they’ve learned as well as help the crowd learn what might be happening next. It was a form of crowd sourcing and play. We enlisted a MAYAn game designer as a dungeon master who tuned the experience over the course of the festival. We also generated over 400 information visualizations based on real-time human sensing. Ultimately we asked, how might Pepsi be an indispensable accessory for the festival?
This was a form of thing from the future prototyping that explored sketch noting and treasure hunts as a medium along with a magical calm technology called the Livescribe.
If you are really trying to make something new and rich come into the world you can combine all these efforts with an accelerated collection of periodic simulations of a decade in a month, a year in a week, a week in a day to force evolution. We called it the double helix process at MAYA.