One of the most influential product prototypes of the 21st century wasn’t dreamed up in Cupertino or Mountain View. Its development began around a half-century ago, in the pages of a monthly pulp fiction mag.
In 1956, Philip K. Dick published a short story that follows the tribulations of a police chief in a future marked by predictive computers, humans wired to machines, and screen-based video communications. Dick’s work inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to think deeply about that kind of future. To adapt that same story into a $100 million Hollywood film 50 years later, Steven Spielberg sent his production designer, Alex McDowell, to MIT. There, a pioneering researcher — and lifelong Dick fan — named John Underkoffler was experimenting with ways to let people manipulate data with gloved hands. In 2002, a version of his prototype was featured in the film, where it quickly became one of the most important fictional user interfaces since the heyday of Star Trek. Bas Ording, one of the chief UI designers of the original iPhone, told me his work was inspired directly by the gesture-based system showcased in Minority Report.
For the past century, this messy, looping process — in which science fiction writers imagine the fabric of various futures, then the generation reared on those visions sets about bringing them into being — has yielded some of our most enduring technologies and products. The late sci-fi author Thomas Disch called it “creative visualization” and noted there was no more persuasive example of its power “than the way the rocket-ship daydreams of the early twentieth century evolved into NASA’s hardware.” Submarines, cellphones, and e-readers all evolved along these lines.
Minority Report produced a hundred patents and helped rapidly mainstream the concept of gesture-based computing — not just the iPhone but all touchscreen tablets, the Kinect, the Wii — and became cultural shorthand for anyone looking to point their ventures toward the future. Before they even had a script, Spielberg convened a two-day “idea summit” around the film with the intent of establishing a lifelike futureworld. Icons like virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand joined folks from DARPA and the Washington Post and spent days dissecting cultural trends and technological trajectories. They drew a detailed road map to a world marked by targeted video advertising, invasive surveillance drones, and nimble autonomous cars — things that may have seemed outlandish in 2002 but are all too real in 2018.
“The gap between ‘sci-fi,’ — that which was once imagined — and ‘sci-fact,’ that which becomes manifest and real, is shrinking.”
The film’s world — not its plot or stars — became an aspirational culture product in itself. “I wish I could get away with charging my clients a fee for every time they say ‘Minority Report’ to me,” one Los Angeles commercial artist remarked a full decade after the film was released. To certain observers, Minority Report helped transform the bridge between science fiction and real technology into a pipeline.
In the decade since, the business world has been increasingly aware of the genre’s potential. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm that advises 440 of the Fortune 500 companies, published a blueprint for using science fiction to explore business innovation. The same year, the Harvard Business Review argued that “business leaders need to read more science fiction” in order to stay ahead of the curve. “We’re already seeing science fiction become reality today,” said Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt in 2012. “Think back to Star Trek, or my favorite, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — much of what those writers imagined is now possible,” he said, ticking off auto-translation, voice recognition, and electronic books. Jeff Bezos’ product design team built the Kindle to spec from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age. (Stephenson himself is the chief future at the multibillion-dollar-valued Magic Leap.) Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at Lux Capital, is pouring millions of dollars into companies building what he explicitly describes as “the sci-fi future.” “I’m looking for things that feel like they were once written about in science fiction,” he told Fortune. “The gap between ‘sci-fi,’ — that which was once imagined — and ‘sci-fact,’ that which becomes manifest and real, is shrinking.”
A number of companies, along with a loose constellation of designers, marketers, and consultants, have formed to expedite the messy creative visualization process that used to take decades. For a fee, they’ll prototype a possible future for a client, replete with characters who live in it, at as deep a level as a company can afford. They aim to do what science fiction has always done — build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.
Alternatively referred to as sci-fi prototyping, futurecasting, or worldbuilding, the goal of these companies is generally the same: help clients create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and IP for progress or profit. Each of the biggest practitioners believe they have their own formulas for helping clients negotiate the future. And corporations like Ford, Nike, Intel, and Hershey’s, it turns out, are willing to pay hefty sums for their own in-house Minority Reports.