If someone asked you to imagine your life in 10 days, what would you see? And what about 10 years from now—can you picture it just as clearly?
Imagining the future can be hard because our brains aren’t wired to think that far ahead. Speculations, conjectures, and uncertainties make the future a nebulous place. And if we can’t get a clear idea of what our future might look like tomorrow, then how can we make the right decisions today? That question lies at the heart of a dazzling new exhibition called Futures. Opening today inside the long-closed Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C., Futures combines more than 150 ideas, objects, and technological innovations, collected from 23 Smithsonian museums and research centers, that paint a multifaceted portrait of what our future may hold.
The exhibition was developed by the Smithsonian in partnership with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a nonprofit think tank based in Palo Alto that helps organizations plan for the long-term future. Spanning 32,000 square feet across the building’s four main halls and majestic central rotunda, it is punctuated with a series of so-called beacons—10-foot-tall LED screens that visitors interact with using nothing but hand gestures. Part game, part psychological experiment on future thinking, the beacons help visitors time travel through a series of prompts designed to give us a sense of agency. When the exhibition closes in July 2022, the anonymously aggregated responses from the beacons will be analyzed by the IFTF to inform further research into the kinds of tools people need to make better decisions for the future—today.
The exhibition was designed by Rockwell Group, the New York-based architecture firm best known for designing high-end restaurant interiors like Nobu and Catch Steak. The beacons themselves are the brainchild of Rockwell Group’s Lab, an incubator devoted to the experimental projects, in collaboration with the IFTF (and with support from Softbank).
Interacting with the machine, I feel like I’ve stepped into the role of Tom Cruise in Minority Report (except I didn’t even need his gloves). “I’m your future. Nice to meet you,” the screen says before I approach it. To activate it, I hover my hand over a trackpad. “Welcome,” it says in return.
From then on, the system proceeds to ask me a series of questions about the future. “How hopeful are you that the world in 2030 will be more efficient than it is today?” A horizontal graph below it runs from “less hope” to “more hope.” As I hover my hand over the trackpad, a slider appears on the screen and glides to the right along with my hand. I’m feeling pretty hopeful, so I linger over the very last rung. As my hand hovers there, I can feel subtle vibrations, like hundreds of air puffs bouncing against the palm of hand. My answer registers.
The beacons use hand-gesture technology and haptics (the vibrations) for a number of reasons. First, it’s pandemic-friendly as it doesn’t involve any touching. Second, it provides visitors with a way of interacting with emerging technologies that makes it a very fitting experience for an exhibition about the future. “We’ve all crystallized the way that we interact with screens through our phones or through touch panels, but with gestures, there are so many different kinds of expressive capacities,” says David Tracy, the Lab’s director of creative technology.
As someone who’d never used a gesture-controlled device before, it took some getting used to. The technology wasn’t flawless, but the experience was undoubtedly cool. It was rooted in science, too. “The goal was to engender curiosity, and to give people a sense of their own agency in how the future might come about,” says David Rockwell, the founder and president of Rockwell Group.
According to Jane McGonigal, the director of game research and development at IFTF, that sense of agency starts to crystallize when we can more clearly visualize what lies ahead. The problem is, people can only imagine the future as far out as they have been alive. “If you’re 30, you can only think 30 years ahead,” she says. The process is even harder for teenagers: They have the hardest time visualizing the future, yet they’re the ones who will be impacted the most by the decisions we make today.
“When our brain tries to imagine something it doesn’t have a lot of information about, it tends to evaluate it as unrealistic or improbable,” says McGonigal, whose upcoming book, Imaginable, teaches us how to envision the future before it arrives. The goal of those beacons, then, is to provide people with concrete details to help them conjure up a vision of the future that is believable. For example, when I chose “free education” to a question about the key to a better world, a prop newspaper clip showed up on the screen, with a headline that read “Free Tuition: United Nations University Launches Its First Campus on Mars,” courtesy of Futures Times. “It can spark imagination so [people] can fill in the blanks of that story,” says McGonigal.
In many ways, interacting with the beacons is like playing a game. “When you play a game, you get to make choices, and the choices you make affect the outcome of the game,” says McGonigal, whose game SuperBetter, released in 2012, helped a million players tackle real-life health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and traumatic brain injury. “When you move a chess piece, that choice determines a set of possible outcomes.”
Much in the same way, the beacons allow us to make a series of choices and consider their impact in the real world. “Through that interactivity, people will start to see that we’re all playing our way to the future together,” she says. “And if we can see the choices that are available to us, we might feel that power.”