Seeing The Future

Last weekend, I went to Disneyland for the first time. I totally see why my GT advisor is obsessed with it! But, the least impressive part of the experience for me was visiting the Innoventions exhibit which supposedly showcases the future of home, work, and play. Compared to the creativity of the rest of the park, the ideas presented there were incredibly stale. Apparently, the future is going to have videogames and digital photo displays *YAWN.* But, being there did get me to start reflecting on what I expected to see there. Could I design a showcase of the future that wouldn’t get outdated and silly in a few years’ time?

Crappy remotes and digital photo frames are two examples of underwhelming future technologies displayed in Innoventions.

Crappy remotes and digital photo frames are two examples of underwhelming future technologies displayed in Innoventions.

I read a lot of science fiction, but I find that more recent stories don’t even try to make a serious attempt at predicting the future. Others agree. Paul Kincaid wrote a long essay about the changes in how fiction tries to predict the future, saying: “we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with … things happen as if by magic … or else things are so different that there is no connection with the experiences and perceptions of our present.” So, even science fiction writers now find it difficult to consider what the future may look like. Do I have any hope?

As an innovator, it is my job to see the future. I am frequently asked what will be the next big thing in ten years and that question is getting increasingly difficult to answer. Even deciding between alternatives is difficult: will the future be all about viewing reality through ocular displays or will it be about augmenting the environment with ubiquitously-available projection? Well, my answer to everything is “both.” I think most of the technologies that are currently in innovation cradles will have a place in the future as they mature and find an appropriate niche. Self-driving cars or better ways to commute through public transportation? Both! Extremely accurate audio input or brain-computer interfaces? Both! More lo-fi text-based communication or high-def holographic projection conferencing? Both! Better ways to collaborate remotely or better opportunities to collaborate in-person? Both!

When the task is to design something for “three years from now,” I begin by looking at how people currently approach a specific challenge and design to do the same thing better, faster, stronger. I think that method doesn’t work as well for designing for ten years from now, because the challenges people face change as quickly as available technologies do. Designing for ten years from now requires envisioning the infrastructure and complex ecosystem of other technologies that will be available in the future. What has worked for me most recently is assuming that a nascent technology will be common place, creating such an environment in the lab, and working closely with a group of participants to help them envision the challenges and opportunities that they may face in that future environment. What would people do if anything could become a display? What would people do if they no longer had to worry about driving themselves from place to place? What would people do if they could easily connect with anybody in the world? Start designing for that future now.