Forum: on the edge

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Inventing the future

Lars Holmquist

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"We are all interested in the future, because that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives." This wonderful quote, sage and stupid at the same time, originates from an eccentric 1960s psychic who called himself Criswell. Criswell had a thing for appearing on TV in a coffin and prefacing every utterance with a dramatic "I predict!" His own predictions did have their ups ("I predict! President Kennedy will not run for reelection in 1964 because of something that will happen to him in November 1963") and downs ("I predict! An outburst of cannibalism will terrorize the population of one of the industrial cities in the state of Pennsylvania—Pittsburgh"). It only goes to show that predicting the future takes some practice to get just right.

Researchers and engineers are often a sort of Criswell too—creating technologies for some imagined future use. Perhaps Alan Kay said it best: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." He should know: Rather than spout prophesies at random, he actively shaped the future we live in right now, including the laptop computer and the graphical user interface. His optimistic message was that engineers with a vision can do just about anything, as long as they do not worry about what other people think and just go ahead and build stuff.

In my own research group, the Future Applications Lab, we also hope to invent the future. However, despite what Alan Kay said, it is not enough to just go ahead and build technology in a vacuum. Engineers do not always know a lot about what people want and need, and just because something works technically does not mean that it will do a whole lot of good. So unless we are ready to rely on blind luck, we will have to develop a systematic approach to help us predict the future a little more reliably. Scenario planning, user testing, participatory design, ethnographic studies, and other methods can help anchor technical ideas in the real world. In my lab we use many such methods, and have also developed our own processes for inventing new applications. The approach, I like to think, is equal parts Criswell and Kay-balancing wild predictions with technology that actually works.

The overarching process we employ is called user-driven innovation. Here, we start out with an interesting new technology and then try to engage unusual user groups who can provide us with a fresh perspective and stimulate new ideas. Crucially, the aim is not to design directly for these users, but instead to take their specialized concerns as a starting point to find inspiration for features that can have a much wider appeal.

One example is the Context Camera. The original idea was a camera that uses external sensors to affect the image, so that, for instance, ambient sounds and movements directly influence the visual appearance of a photo. We collaborated with a group of lomographers, who take their name from a Russian analog camera. The Lomo camera is slightly defective, which can make photographs look more interesting, but it also makes results more unpredictable. Lomographers live by certain rules, including "don't think, just shoot;" they will generate hundreds of pictures and keep only a select few. The rest are discarded. By working with such "extreme users," we got a different sort of feedback than we would have gotten in a regular participatory design process. A new version of the Context Camera based on this input has now been ported to a mobile phone, and a new explorative study with a wider range of users was recently completed.

We are continuing to refine the process of user-driven innovation and have already applied it to several other fields, such as mobile music and robots. One result is a novel portable music-sharing prototype, Push!Music. Interviews with music users ideas combined with work on intelligent agents inspired a feature where users can "push" music into the playlists of other users in the vicinity. This seems counterintuitive, as it takes away the listeners' control over what they are listening to, but early user studies indicate that it was in fact a very successful part of the system.

Through User-Driven Innovation, we are working with real—if "extreme"—users to develop new technology. But there also has to be room for wild, Criswell-type predictions. One familiar way of generating new ideas is brainstorming. Inspired by the "cut-up" technique of author William Burroughs, we developed a new brainstorm method called bootlegging. When we combined an ordinary brainstorm (generating ideas within a certain theme) with a measure of controlled chance (mixing up the results at semi-random) we found that the process became more liberated and creative. Just like Burroughs discovered, the seemingly simple act of randomly combining thoughts can lead to unexpectedly useful, sometimes even profound, results.

The bootlegging technique has proven particularly useful with multidisciplinary groups. A successful bootlegging session at the workshop "Designing Robot Applications for Everyday Use" not only generated a lot of ideas; it also created a common ground for participants from many different backgrounds. Similarly, at the "Workshop on Mobile Music Technology," the semirandomly created flow of ideas was again wild and inspiring, and the process also helped to put participants on the same page and expand the space of potential applications. Bootlegging has subsequently been picked up and used by others in different domains.

Methods like user-driven innovation and bootlegging can be a great help in generating application ideas and prototypes that are both innovative and relevant. There is no guarantee that they will be more successful visions of the future than Criswell's predictions, but if we want to invent the future we have to take our chances. And who knows, perhaps it would be wise to stay out of Pittsburgh for a while...

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Criswell Predicts!

Alan Kay's quote

Context Photography


The Cut-Up Technique of William Burroughs

Bootlegging workshops

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Future Institute in Goteborg, Sweden

About the author

Lars Erik Holmquist is leader of the Future Institute in Goteborg, Sweden. Before this, he founded and led the PLAY research group from 1997 to 2001. He is interested in innovative interactive technology, including tangible interfaces, informative art, mobile media and autonomous systems. He was general chair of UbiComp 2002, the international conference on ubiquitous computing and is an associate editor of the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The Context Camera was inspired by the practices of "extreme users" such as lomographers

F2Figure 2. Participants in a bootlegging workshop acting out a future mobile music scenario

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