Do Fortune 500 CEOs dream of electric sheep? No, they dream about the hundreds of ways their companies could be put out of business by the radical idea that they never see coming. A new business model, or some gadget. At first it's a novelty, easy to laugh off, but then it evolves, people begin to get it, and it catches on. Next thing you know, your company is Kodak, Blockbuster, or a taxi cab.
There's no shortage of research and consulting firms that offer to help companies avoid these fates. Some might tout their design thinking chops, others employ improvisational comedy tropes. But a small Burbank, California, consulting and prototyping firm called SciFutures caught my eye for its own slightly odd approach. The firm works with a panel of 100 published science fiction writers to help its clients visualize their worst disruption nightmares, and then begin to imagine the products or business ideas that might offer them an alternate reality.
SciFutures CEO and founder Ari Popper and CTO Scott Susskind truly believe that the biggest and most influential technologies of the future are often foretold in science fiction writing. Examples of this aren’t hard to find. In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea of using satellites for global communication. The internet was foreseen in the cyberpunk tales of William Gibson in the early '80s when people in university labs were just beginning to connect networks of computers. Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash credited The Matrix for showing that virtual reality (VR) is a viable idea. The augmented reality (AR) startup Magic Leap hired Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson to be its chief futurist.
The secret of innovation, according to SciFutures, can be unlocked by understanding how the realities, the knowns, of the present logically move toward the as-yet-unknown realities of the future.
Science fiction prototyping—turning futuristic ideas into applied technologies—has been successfully used in the past, notably by futurist Brian David Johnson while he was working at Intel. Their integrated circuits had very long life cycles of between seven and 10 years, which meant the company had to anticipate the needs of the marketplace a decade in the future in order to design the next generation of chips. Companies had already been prototyping products using scenario-based design; Johnson had the good idea of using science fiction writing techniques to cast those scenarios 10 years in the future. He soon expanded the idea and wrote it into an Intel product design framework called the Consumer Experience Architecture.
Johnson may have introduced the concept to the world, but Popper says SciFutures is the first company to found a business on Science Fiction Prototyping. The story goes that Popper was doing a sci-fi writers group when he had an epiphany that sci-fi might help unlock the corporate creative forces that give birth to game-changing products. He says he wasn’t completely sure the idea could become a viable business, but he decided to try it anyway. He later brought on Susskind to focus on the physical prototyping part of the business. As Popper and company have refined their "future-casting" workshops and the way they work with sci-fi writers, the SciFutures idea started to work. Now the firm’s client list includes Samsung and Intel, consumer packaged goods companies like The Hershey Company and Clorox, and financial services companies such as Visa and the Ford Motor Company.
SciFutures’ best-known project was helping the Lowe’s hardware store chain conceive of and create the HoloRoom, a 20-by-20-foot physical space in which shoppers can see how various Lowe’s products (like paints, flooring, or window coverings) would look in their own homes. Customers use a tablet to pick out the products—3D representations of them—then use an AR headset to see the products placed in context in the home. They can then quickly flip through different paint and window covering combinations, for example. The first HoloRooms were opened in two Lowe’s stores in Canada in 2014, then in 19 U.S. stores starting in 2015. Since then Lowe's has continued developing the HoloRooms with different technology partners.
The HoloRoom was one of the ideas that bubbled up when Lowe’s Innovation Lab went through the SciFutures process, complete with science fiction writer punch-ups and product prototyping. Augmented reality-aided shopping isn’t exactly new, but SciFutures and Lowe’s brought it to consumers well in advance of other major retailers. Ikea, for example, launched its AR shopping app this past April. The online furniture retailer Wayfair.com launched its WayfairView app in June using Google's Project Tango AR software.
The SciFutures office is nestled between an audio/video rental shop and a rehab center in a cluster of office buildings. The top floor is an open space with large skylights, a couple large conference rooms, an open kitchen, one large office where Popper and Scott sit, and a couple of large worktables where the company’s account reps, marketing people, and support staff work. On the first floor I saw a shop loaded with tools for building demos and prototypes, and a big industrial space where large physical exhibits are built, such as a car interior exhibit built to demo Visa’s in-car mobile payments.
The most interesting place in the building was across the hall: the emerging technology and prototype demo lab. The space is partly for show and partly for work. Half of it is outfitted with the couches, tables, and TVs you always see in Internet of Things (IoT) or smart home demos. VR headsets were there for use by visitors. And underneath one of the TVs was a dense bank of digital production gear, a keyboard, and some headgear. Some serious VR or AR programming—real prototyping and development work—had been going on there before I arrived.
Maybe the L.A. heat had got to me, but in this room I started to pick up on a sort of Disney World "anything can happen" vibe. The room is full of tables on which staff are busy "playing" with emerging technologies that will be combined in various ways to create something as yet unseen. Most of the prototypes are top secret at the moment, but a few were already public. One table was littered with home appliances and tablet PCs, with an Amazon Echo voice-based personal assistant device in the center controlling it all. In fact, SciFutures has become a leading developer of new "skills" for Alexa, the natural language brain that powers Echo. They just built a skill for Glad that tells you what’s recyclable and gives advice on how to do it.
One table was littered with the fronts of credit card payment terminals; the SciFutures engineers were demonstrating how thieves use them to easily "scrape" credit card information at the countertop or the ATM. SciFutures has at least one military client, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, who it is helping "imagine the future of warfare," says Popper. And that’s about all he would tell me about it.
The freelance writers who work with SciFutures aren’t given a whole lot to go on, and they never meet or talk to the client. That’s by design. They’re given a short brief about the client’s products and industry, and about the outcomes of a workshop (more on that later). The writer then creates a two- to three-page story treatment over the course of a few days that shows where the technology might go. The treatments use a familiar format and story arc; they usually focus on one or two main characters and their discovery and interaction with the technology, as well as the cultural context in which it happens—the political, social, and psychological effects on people.
SciFutures exerts some influence on the result by selecting which writer or writers will work on a specific client account. SciFutures categorizes writers by their focus areas, interests, research areas, hobbies, prior careers, age, geography, and psychographic information. It’s also important that the writer targets the right kind of "future" in the treatment. Popper says he looks for the right balance between the fantastic and the realistic.
"The work we do is more like predicting, like projecting 10 to 15 years out into the future," one of the writers from SciFutures’ panel, Divya Breed, told me. "It’s not so much fantasizing but more like thinking wishfully—thinking of fun ways the tech could be developed."
Breed, who once worked as an engineer at a tech company, says now that she’s a professional writer she’s still immersed in tech; she still runs in social circles where it's usually the topic of conversation. Emerging technologies are also the subject of her research for her own sci-fi work. All of that can potentially influence her take on the technology described in the assignments she gets.
Another SciFutures writer, Brenta Blevins, is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and focuses her research on virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality tech. "The writers are trying to produce multiple science fiction treatments that show multiple different ways these products can change people’s lives," she told me.
I asked Blevins why she thinks the SciFutures process works. "It’s the power of story; stories are the original reality simulators," she says. "These are thought experiments that provide this wide range of ways to think about these products." The narratives offer a chance to portray all the ways new technologies might impact human beings, she says.
The imaginings of writers like Breed and Blevins brings a very different flavor to SciFutures’ process and deliverables, compared to that of other consultants. "You kind of remove a layer of abstraction between the person sitting in a lab and the user deriving pleasure from using the product," says Breed. "It helps bridge that gap and helps people make new product real."
The work done in the workshops, and the further ideation by the sci-fi writers, culminates in an array of deliverables for the client company. It might be written or verbal consulting, animations, or videos, or a graphic novel.
SciFutures also provides clients with a graphical map that shows all the ideas discussed and the technologies that would need to be brought to bear to create them. The map looks something like a solar system map, with each idea placed by type into a pie slice around the middle. Within each of those segments the supporting technologies for the ideas are arranged closer or further from the center based on their viability score. That is, technologies closer to the middle are mature, ready to deploy, while less mature technologies (like mind-machine interfaces) are placed toward the outside solar system.
For Hershey, SciFutures created a graphic novel that portrayed how people might use 3D-printed food (not just chocolate) in the future. The point is to place the ideas created in the workgroup or by the sci-fi authors into real-life settings and human situations to bring the whole thing closer to reality.
Hershey had already built and productized 3D-printed chocolate after the company’s CEO met a 3D printing company executive at a conference and told his new friend "we should do business together." Soon after, it became Hershey innovation group manager Jeff Mundt’s task to figure out how the technology might evolve, how people might want to 3D-print food in the future. "We have created very intricate [chocolate] shapes, but now what?" Mundt says. "What’s the commercial path for this? If people are going to use it, what might that look like? Are you really going to print out your breakfast while you’re sleeping?"
Understanding what chocolate consumers want today requires only traditional market research, Mundt points out, but understanding the wants of people in the future is something different. The SciFutures process helped Mundt and his group tackle some hard questions about 3D printing. "The story can help you create that roadmap," Mundt says. "If that’s going to be true, then what are the steps that are going to be necessary to get us there? So you can kind of work backwards."
Mundt points out that the SciFutures process was just one possible approach, and that approach isn’t for everybody. "We are a conservative company, and what you get from working with SciFutures is something that looks like a comic book," Mundt says. "It’s actually an illustrated narrative, but a senior manager at a conservative CPG (consumer packaged goods) company might be looking for Nielsen data, [and might ask] ‘Why would I do that?"
"There's definitely a healthy tension between being too close in, where you're not really disrupting and pushing, and so far out where it becomes ridiculous and meaningless," Popper says. "[We] know how to really get the best out of both worlds, so it will be disruptive and imaginative enough that you're pushing the boundaries, but have enough of a link back to today so that you can build to that."
SciFutures earns consulting fees for their initial ideation work with clients, but the hope is that the process will graduate to the next phase. "What we then hope it does is trigger the prototyping so that we can start to build early-stage articulations of [actual products]," Susskind says. The entire bottom floor of SciFutures’ space in Burbank is reserved for just that.
SciFutures has had its failures. A couple of young and energetic executives from a large consumer products company (Popper asked me not to mention the name) came to SciFutures to help them conceive of some new and futuristic ways of marketing a new technology they’d invented.
The first major step in SciFutures’ process is a "grounding" meeting with the client in which Popper, Susskind, an in-house sci-fi writer, and some staffers work to orient the client to emerging technologies in general, and to the emerging technologies that might impact the client specifically. The workshops involve anywhere from five to 30 people.
After the foundations have been laid, a new phase begins: the "disorienting." The client is told to forget about the day-to-day concerns of the business and complete a number of writing exercises in which they imagine the dystopian future of the company, and the technology and services that might be in it. "Let's put ourselves out of business applying what we've learned," Popper says (speaking for the client).
For instance, during a workshop SciFutures did with Ford’s Future’s Group, the Ford people imagined a future in which nobody owns cars but rather shares or borrows them. "It helps everyone articulate unconscious fears that they might have about their business that they've never brought up or have frankly never even thought about," says Popper.
After the client has scared the daylights out of themselves by imagining a future where their company has been disrupted out of business, they start to think about how a happy ending might come about. "They do a little dystopic diligence and use that information as a way to elevate their company, their product, business model, whatever it might be," Susskind says.
Some of the ideas generated in the workshops, if acted upon, could mean major strategic changes and reallocation of resources. That’s scary to people with children and mortgages. Popper says these people often hit a breaking point when those self-preservation instincts kick in. They often use statements like: "That will never work," or "You can't do that," or "Why?" or "You just can't," Popper says.
"The body language is funny," Susskind says. "It's like a threat; I'm protecting my body against a threat."
Popper says when his team initially began to witness this type of response, they thought they were doing something wrong by going too far. But they soon recognized it as a symptom of something going right. "We push them, and sometimes they're just too afraid, and they stop," Popper says. "We've had clients where we've had to go, ‘Okay.’"
In the case of the unnamed consumer products company, the junior execs who championed SciFutures internally were full of energy and good intentions, Popper says. But more senior people within the company were only interested in "giving lip service" to innovation without really doing anything. They had even set up an "innovation fund" and allotted some cash to it. One high-ranking exec pulled Popper aside and said: "Look, I'm not supposed to say this, but I'm going to tell you guys anyway. We need to change—and we never will."
And that’s why the SciFutures process ultimately didn’t work there. "You can't do this halfheartedly, Popper says. "It's painful and it's bruises, but that's when you get to the really great work; they just didn't give themselves the permission or the space to get into it."
Popper is a very convincing guy. He’s a very likable guy. His customers say he’s extremely energized about technology, a true believer, and that his excitement has a way of rubbing off on others. Popper’s personality is important because SciFutures wants to do more than just sci-fi ideation and prototyping. They want to evangelize; they want to help win the battle for hearts and minds within the client’s walls. Popper and Susskind told me they are very concerned about finding people at the client who get the need for change and new ideas, but also a budget, and the political juice to push the ideas to fruition.
Popper: "We feel that if we haven't changed behavior or if we haven't created a need for product or a meaningful new way of doing business, then we actually haven't been that successful, all we've done is entertain people, and you can go see a sci-fi film to do that."
Susskind, too, exudes the kind of blue-sky, optimistic vibe I felt in Burbank. He’s also an engineer—steeped in a kaleidoscope of near-field and far-field emerging technologies—a kind of MacGyver, the guy who knows how to gather all the right hardware and software ingredients. For one prototype, Susskind might source technologies from 10 different partners and piece them altogether into a device that’s never been seen before. The tables down on the first floor at SciFutures are littered with such parts.
The trouble with prototyping is that it's expensive. Building just one can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's why SciFutures has begun creating virtual prototypes using augmented reality tech, to show clients how a product might work in the real world, and allow people from the client to share it with other people in the company. The difference is that the product is seen through the screen of a tablet or through a headset like Microsoft’s HoloLens. "People can see them and almost have a visceral experience, just short of actually physically holding it in your hand, but it will still show potential," Susskind says.
But no matter how real the simulation or convincing the prototype, for executives who can’t or won’t confront change and embrace their fears, the future will remain a scary, dangerous place.
And those who do choose to change have to survive sometimes painful internal transformations, overcoming lots of doubt along the way. Popper makes it sound almost spiritual: "In order to start something new you have to stop doing what you were doing," he says. "It’s about realigning your efforts, and it ultimately leads to a new place of knowledge, confidence, and wisdom."