Monday, January 31, 2011

The legacy of the Biofuture Robot Dog

Image: SPOD

Earlier this month, in conversation with the effervescent Dawn Danby (a regular contributor to the recently retired enviro-blog WorldChanging), she happened to mention a design competition run back in 02002 by science fiction author and design-fiction-impresario-to-be Bruce Sterling, in cooperation with scenario planning kingpins Global Business Network. Ah, design and futures: two great tastes that taste great together.

Said competition, staged by Sterling via the green-tech Viridian list (wound up in late '08, but still in full swing six years earlier), revolved around producing a concept design for a Biofuture Robot Dog:

This is a biofuturistic, green, way out-there ribo-bio-bamboo 'dog', which is transorganic, biomimetic, Viridian, enzymatically postindustrial, and tissue-engineered.

It needs to enter some commercial and cultural space which actual dogs and contemporary robots cannot reach. What does a biofuturist paradog do for tomorrow's consumer? What kind of society buys these gizmos?  Why do people make them, what are they for, what kind of future world would support this device? Try to suggest some convincing answers – answers that can snow real live venture capitalists!

And it's a toy. That's of vital importance. The target is the age 9-12 demographic. It's not for war, terror, prison, or home security, tasty though those sinister applications may be. We want parents buying this. It needs to jump right off the shelf and into their loving arms.

At the risk, perhaps, of muscling in on the beat of Matt Novak over at Paleofuture, who performs the post-post-ironic public service of collecting and blogging images of futures past, I want to add this competition's entries to the early canon of online experiential scenarios (a.k.a., in deference to Bruce, "design fictions" -- which he recently defined as "the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change" -- on which more anon).

As it turns out, Dawn and collaborator Paul Waggoner won the contest with their contribution, SPOD (Super-Personalized Obedient Dawg), which, together with other competition finalists, can still be found online, thanks to the wonders of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Almost ten years old now, this and other playful concept designs remind us that, while the web has changed a great deal in the past decade, the manifesting of hypothetical future possibilities in a contemporary design idiom, as if they already existed in the present, is a communicative strategy evolving in step with whatever media happen to be at our disposal.

Related posts:
Viridian is dead. Long live Viridian!
Killer imps
> Greener gadgets
> Object-oriented futuring
> Design fiction is a fact