Sci-Fi prototyping Designing the future with
science-fiction writers:
ONE DAY, 2050 /
Sci-Fi Prototyping

The ONE DAY, 2050 / Sci-Fi Prototyping project brought Sony Creative Center designers together with
science-fiction (sci-fi) writers to spin speculative narratives on "Tokyo in 2050."
Central to the project was the “Sci-Fi prototyping” method, which involves imagining
the future through a sci-fi lens and working backward to plot out roadmaps for how to get
there—a process that opens up new frontiers for design.
The project’s two core components, Short Sci-Fi Stories and Design Prototyping, sought out new perspectives
that looked beyond conventional concepts. How did that process work? What came out of the initiative?
We got the inside story from several designers from the project, which followed up its first exhibition at
Ginza Sony Park in September 2021 with a showing at the KYOTO STEAM—International Arts x Science Festival
in December. Read on for a captivating design story.

Haruka Matsubara
(Designer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Takumi Suzuki
(Designer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Chihiro Aoshima
(Designer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Subaru Kitae
(Designer, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Shigeki Ohno
(Senior Manager, Creative Center,
Sony Group Corporation)

Science fiction and design come together
to imagine the future

As technology continues to advance and society takes on new layers of diversity, the VUCA (*1) era—an age of ceaseless, whirlwind change—is taking shape. The Creative Center is looking for new ways to use design amid that swirling uncertainty, always in search of paths to innovation.
One effort in that mold was ONE DAY, 2050 / Sci-Fi Prototyping, which brought Sony designers and sci-fi writers together to co-imagine "Tokyo in 2050" via Sci-Fi prototyping—an approach that Sony was using for the first time. Using the keywords of “2050,” "Tokyo," and "romance" to center the brainstorming process, the project team laid out four themes for participants to explore: WELL-BEING, HABITAT, SENSE, and LIFE. A series of workshops then took place, ultimately producing "Design Prototyping" by the designers and "Short Sci-Fi Stories" by the writers.
The collaboration between designers and sci-fi writers was the first of its kind at Sony. How did it unfold? What grew out of the project’s collective imaginations? Looking back on the project, the designers on the project team told us about the insights they gained through the effort, the mindsets they took into design prototyping, and the new design possibilities that emerged.

(*1) VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity): A business term to describe a situation that is difficult to deal with or predict using existing methodologies due to technological advances and societal change.

Prototyping what
the year 2050 might hold

Could you walk us through the backstory of the Sci-Fi Prototyping project?

Shigeki Ohno (project leader)Sure. My position involves a lot of work on Creative Center-wide initiatives, so I’m always exploring ways to work new design methods into what we do. That’s where the Sci-Fi Prototyping project got its inspiration. The year 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the Creative Center’s founding. Starting out with a core focus on designing products, logos, packaging, and other elements for Sony electronics, the Creative Center has gradually seen the scope of its activities extend into UI and UX design, service design, and branding as Sony’s business activities have reached into fields like entertainment, finance, and business solutions. At the same time, we now find ourselves confronting an increasingly unpredictable future—and design, which is playing bigger and bigger roles in that context, has to find new ways of exploring and shaping what lies ahead. When the Creative Center started looking into potential approaches through DESIGN VISION (*2), our design research project, Sci-Fi prototyping was one method that grabbed our attention.

(*2) DESIGN VISION, Sony’s design research project >

What did you imagine would come out of a fusion between the imaginations of science-fiction writers and the power of design?

OhnoConventional research methods forecast the future from a point in the present, but they don’t paint very clear pictures of the future anymore—even looking just a few years down the road. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example; no one could have known ahead of time what kind of impact the virus was going to have. We needed a different way of looking at things. Sci-Fi prototyping does that. The approach switches things around, using sci-fi to create a vision of a long-term future and then working backward from there—"backcasting," in other words—to identify things to focus on at the current stage. We had a great partner to work with, too. The Japanese edition of WIRED, a technology-focused publication that Sony had built a relationship with through past interviews, design awards, and more, established the WIRED Sci-Fi Prototyping Lab in 2020. The new organization had a clear focus on technology and creativity with an eye to the social, technological, and lifestyle-oriented dimensions of the future, so we reached out to the Lab about working together.

From my standpoint as the producer for the project as a whole, I knew that Sony and sci-fi had a common ground in the idea of building futures on a technological foundation. Due to its need for narratives with important stakes, however, sci-fi tends to paint dystopian visions around plot elements like wars and disasters. At the outset, we didn’t really know how fully Sony and sci-fi writers would be able to co-imagine a realistic future without fanning concerns and anxieties about technology. We just had to see what happened.

Sci-fi narratives often have specific time settings, and Sony’s project was no different. What led you to choose the year 2050 for your imagined future?

OhnoSome experts have projected that the world will reach the "singularity" in 2045. The young employees at Sony today are still going to be working at that point, we figured, and we wanted the project participants to imagine a future that they’d actually be living in. That’s why we set the target year to 2050 and filled our teams with young designers who’d shown an interest in the project. Once we’d divided the roster into teams, we looked at the Creative Center’s key themes for design development and chose four thematic foundations to assign to the teams: WELL-BEING, HABITAT, SENSE, and LIFE.

We also decided to set our imagined future in Tokyo and add "romance" to our list of keywords. Including the concept of "romance" helps put people in the foreground of the project’s story, echoing the Sony Group’s corporate direction of "getting closer to people." When the basic structural elements were all in place, the teams started conceiving visions of 2050 around the four themes and prototyping their ideas.

Before we take another look back at the project as a whole, we’re going to ask designers from the four teams for some behind-the-scenes details on their own groups’ work.

Theme 1: WELL-BEING, 2050 Creating an AI therapist
who gets close to
people
and cares about their well-being

Design Prototyping: Resilience Program
For this conception, designers imagined a 2050 where an "AI therapist" would help people develop better resilience. The design prototype offers a visual rendering of how wearable devices would sense changes in a person’s emotional state and help relieve stress accordingly.
(The photo is from the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space.)

Did your work on the WELL-BEING theme overlap with your regular work at all?

Chihiro Aoshima (team leader)My day-to-day work mainly deals with communication design for the Xperia™ smartphone lineup and branding for Sony Network Communications’ NURO network service. I rarely need to hypothesize about things more than a year or two into the future, so I had to adopt a completely different perspective to envision the year 2050 for the Sci-Fi Prototyping project. As we started thinking of ideas, we came around to the realization that people in 2050 are still going to be dealing with stress—no matter how fully the world embraces the concept of well-being, there’s no way to completely avoid work frustrations, heartbreak, the death of a loved one, and all the other painful, stressful experiences that are just part of life. That was our starting point. Working from there, we began thinking of how we might be able to leverage AI into helping people develop better resilience to cope with any kind of stress.

During the first half of the project, the designers each wrote a short sci-fi piece and presented it to the group to get their imaginations going and pool together ideas. What was your story like?

AoshimaI wrote a scene where a man and a woman meet in a foreign land, covertly using special contact lenses to visualize the other’s emotions. I’d never actually written creatively before, so it wasn’t easy—but the writing process showed me how seeing things from the perspective of someone with different values really helps you get closer to people. It’s easier to empathize when you stand in someone else’s shoes. When we started discussing things from that standpoint, we realized that we can’t define happiness for everyone; what makes a person happy depends on the individual. Since that element of self-determination is so important, we also decided that we should position our AI not as a decision maker but as a source of support for people in need. With that, we had to figure out how we would craft an identity for our AI. Sci-fi movies often depict AI as a gorgeous, elegant being or a detached, unfeeling robot. The big question for us was about relatability: would a person feel comfortable opening up to an AI therapist in either of those aesthetic molds? After lots of lively back and forth about the optimal presentation, we eventually agreed that users would be more willing to trust something that they could sense a kind of otherworldly divinity in—a conceptual nod to the Japan’s long-held belief that the divine is present in all things. From there, we set out to develop an AI from a standpoint that gave consideration not only to the values of people actively seeking out help but also to the values of those who don’t want someone else telling them what to do.

Mockups of the wearable devices at the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space

How did you translate that idea into an actual prototype?

AoshimaWe created a shapeshifting AI "therapist," one that would appear in the optimal form for the individual and deliver advice accordingly. The prototype utilizes a wearable that goes directly on the skin in a location with high concentrations of blood vessels to measure stress hormones and other blood information. When the sensor picks up an abnormal reading, it initiates a resilience program that allows the individual to invoke the AI therapist via contact lenses at his or her own discretion. Instead of making the sensor device an implant, we decided to design it as an external wearable so that it’d have a kind of fashion dynamic to it, as well.

The survey we did at the exhibition gave us lots of valuable feedback and ideas for possible extensions of the prototype, with some people voicing hopes for applications in helping people avoid certain health conditions and stay healthy. I feel like we were able to present a viable possibility for maintaining mental health through people-focused, empathetic technology.

The WELL-BEING team: Keisuke Ito, Ryosuke Nakayama, Chihiro Aoshima, and Akimasa Mishima

Theme 2: HABITAT, 2050 Imagining environmental
and cultural coexistence
in floating mobile houses

Design Prototyping: Floating Habitat
The HABITAT team envisioned a 2050 in which climate change and other factors have led people to live mobile, fluid lives at sea. For the exhibition, the team created a mockup of a floating mobile house and accompanying visual media to reflect an ecosystem where people from myriad cultural spheres coexist with each other and the natural environment.
(The photo is from the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space.)

Tell us about the concept of "floating habitats" on the ocean surface.

Subaru Kitae (team leader)Our basic scenario was that by 2050, certain groups of people would have lost their homes on land and made the switch to life at sea due to climate change and political struggles. Working from that hypothesis, we developed a prototype for a dwelling that could move on the water—a living space that inhabitants could reconfigure and combine into communities to adapt to different environments and live safer, more comfortable lives at sea. We got some of the inspiration for the idea from architect Kenzō Tange’s "A Plan for Tokyo 1960," which envisioned creating a civic axis for an ocean-based city in Tokyo Bay. If you transport that basic idea 90 years into the future, you’re talking about an imagined sea habitat in a time where people are moving and interacting much more fluidly than before. To bring that new vision into clearer focus, we talked with sci-fi writer Haruka Mugihara about what would happen to cities and dwellings in that context. From there, we began to whittle our conceptualization into a more realistic vision of a future where daily life, the environment, and habitats all intertwine and integrate.

A mockup of a floating mobile house at the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space

It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the functionality of your concept, both in terms of the habitat design and the technical dimension.

KitaeRight. We had a lot of help, too. In designing the ecosystem for supplying power between the individual dwelling units, we consulted with researchers on the Open Energy System project at Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Sony CSL). We also sought out Sony engineers who work on inverted pendulums for robots like aibo so that we could learn more about dealing with wave motion, which we figured would pose the biggest challenges to the ocean-surface life. That helped us sharpen our ideas from a technical standpoint, but there was more to address, of course. We also knew it’d be important to design modes of interaction between dwellings, so we shaped the units with hexagonal and triangular motifs to let them connect and form floating villages, countries, and other communities in a new paradigm.

As we developed the design, one thing we always came back to was that adapting to a nomadic life at sea—even for people forced to leave their countries—didn’t need to mean living in a modest dwelling. We wanted our prototype to be something anyone, regardless of their situation, would want to call home.

What kinds of insights emerged as you designed a habitat for 30 years into the future?

KitaeIn my normal work on design for the BRAVIA product family and peripherals, I’d been feeling that the tendency to develop ideas around the available technologies and immediate issues with existing products can make it hard to take big leaps forward from things we are at a given moment. The Sci-Fi Prototyping project gave me a taste of what that kind of leap could be like; we extrapolated ideas out of science fiction, embracing speculative visions and listening to experts in the field, and we imagined how the characters in the stories would react to the products. The process refined our ideas, honing them into concepts with both a bold, fearless imaginativeness and a subtle sensitivity to the user perspective—and that, I think, is what makes the prototyping method such an effective and enthralling one.

Jules Verne, the "father of science fiction," once said, "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real." To make the imagined real, you need to want to create the future. It all depends on passion. Fortunately, Sony is home to so many people with that kind of drive. As Sony designers, we have to work to bring the distant future nearer by fusing our collective passion, visualizing our ideas in clear, intuitive forms, bringing in a diverse mix of viewpoints, and using that stream of new input to accelerate forward progress. Being part of the Sci-Fi Prototyping project really brought home that sense of responsibility.

The HABITAT team: Emika Arai, Subaru Kitae, Yoshihiro Shimizu, and Hiromu Yumiba

Theme 3: SENSE, 2050 Unlocking the entertainment
dynamic of
shared experiences
through the power of scents

Design Prototyping: Sensorial Entertainment
This design prototype for the year 2050 explores the concept of a service and tool capable of reproducing scents from a person’s memory. The team showcased a mockup and accompanying visual media illustrating the mechanism for analyzing emotion data and using the results to create reproductions of scents in digital form.
(The photo is from the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space.)

How did you go about unpacking the SENSE theme?

Takumi Suzuki (team leader)We decided to focus on smell, a sense that Sony is still exploring ways to integrate into its entertainment offerings. Itsuki Tsukui wrote a story about a future where virtual restaurants serve scents for people to “dine” on amid a pervasive mask culture, which took root during the current pandemic. From there, we prototyped a smell-driven service and a mask-type tool to go with it. The idea involves letting people relive past events by reproducing associated scents from their memories, thereby unlocking new forms of communication.

What kinds of ideas did you experiment with in your sci-fi story?

SuzukiI was thinking about what entertainment might be like in 2050, and I eventually wrote a story where people experience life as an animal through technologies that translate non-human sensory information into a human-compatible format. Although I had lots of other ideas bouncing around, I zeroed in on smell for a couple of key reasons. From a technological standpoint, smell was the best choice for a future-oriented prototype just because we don’t have any workable technologies for reproducing smells yet. The other factor was the emotional aspect, which Tsukui’s story really took a fascinating look at; I loved how he wrote about smell as a component of creating "love disconnected from the physical body."

Having narrowed its focus to smell, the team started doing desk research on smell-related data and examples of smell in entertainment settings—but our job was obviously about more than just taking inventory of available information. Looking for more creative, original ideas, we also interviewed engineers who’d developed the AROMASTIC personal aroma diffuser, a past Sony product, and their input opened our eyes to even more potential for smell-centric entertainment. The close, interweaving nature of smell, memory, and emotion was another element that we gave a lot of attention to. Everything eventually came together in our basic concept, a prototype for collecting information from sensing devices in personal environments and using scents to provide users with new experiences.

A mockup of the Scent Mask, the tool that can reproduce past scents,
at the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space

You evidently got into the scientific and technical dimensions of smell. Did that process bring anything else to light?

SuzukiOne of the biggest insights was that the whole experience of sharing scents with other people had incredible potential for a brand-new form of entertainment—and at the same time, that those experiences could also foster new connections between people. Our research also gave us lots of information on the importance of smells in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, findings on smell and taste disorders in COVID-19 recoverees, and insights into the power of smell in romantic contexts and personal relationships, making it clear that smell can play a huge role in well-being.

My day-to-day work focuses on industrial design and UX design for new businesses, along with R&D in the audio-visual field. In those types of settings, we normally do a PoC (proof of concept) based on a business plan and then use the insights that come out of that process to set our design goals. We think about how to design a given thing. The unique challenge of this project, though, was that we had to think about what to design in the first place. Instead of orienting our focus around a specific endpoint, we came together for a more open-ended exploration of entertainment in tomorrow’s world; designers got the freedom to formulate ideas from the ground up, prototyping concepts through a constant mixing and balancing of different values. I think the experience will be a big plus for me in the future.

The SENSE team: Akari Matsumoto, Hajime Abe, Takumi Suzuki, and Nami Katayama

Theme 4: LIFE, 2050 Imagining a tool to help
people envision
new possibilities for
their own lives

Design Prototyping: Life Simulator
Assuming that lifestyles and values will be even more diverse in 2050 than they are today, the team created the concept of a service that allows people to simulate the ever-growing range of possibilities in their lives at high levels of accuracy. The team’s exhibition featured interactive visual media showing how the service could help people plan out their lives based on their own wishes and intentions.
(The photo is from the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space.)

The LIFE theme had to do with how people live life itself, not just one individual element of it. How did you go about tackling such a dense, heady topic?

Haruka Matsubara (team leader)The story by Taiyo Fujii, our sci-fi writer, paints a 2050 where there’s a clear, distinct separation between a person’s "job" (means of sustaining one’s life) and “work” (means of enjoyment and fulfillment) and a host of different social-security structures available. Since our theme dealt with how people live life itself, not just how they work, finding our way from an abstract starting point to a concrete design prototype was no easy task.

One of the things that struck me about Fujii’s story was how his characters had the ability to choose from different paths and live parallel lives. When you look at the life-planning services we have today, in the real world, you see a lot of services that focus on personal finances and assets. In the future, though, there are going to be so many more factors playing into the span of a person’s life—and that will give people so many more choices in charting out their futures. As the team got deeper into those implications, we started to move toward creating a prototype for an "inspiring life-planning service" that would give users a broader palette of possibilities to pursue.

A visual-media display at the Ginza Sony Park exhibition space illustrating
how the service presents the individual with a complex, diverse array of life-planning options and possibilities

What kind of research did you do as you explored approaches to your service concept?

MatsubaraWe first sounded out ideas from people in the Sony organization and gathered information on how people were tackling similar ideas, both in Japan and abroad. Once we had that foundation, we talked through the ideas as a team and ironed out a conceptual setup to build around. Part of our research looked at different countries’ approaches to using AI, including in terms of human-AI relations and privacy; Finland, for example, has an AI-driven social-security system. That helped inform discussions on our key conceptual questions—things like what we wanted the service to be and what society would need the service to offer. The answers gradually started coming together around a commitment to limiting the AI to a supportive role and respecting the user’s individual independence. Then, we began molding that perspective into a design prototype that gives the user the chance to simulate a certain life path from a selection of several scenarios. Our showcase at the exhibition highlighted both the element of independence—placing every life-planning decision in the hands of the individual—and the interdependence of humanity and technology.

In developing scenarios for the prototype, we used current news and predictions to hypothesize developments over the next 10 or 20 years, supporting each projection with reference sources to make them as convincing as possible. The techniques we learned in the sci-fi creative-writing workshop played a big role in that process, I think. We also took the time to interview people who help design life-planning tools for Sony Life Insurance and other providers, who gave us plenty of practical details—ranging from current challenges in the industry to changes in customer needs and potential essentials for the future—that made our design prototype better reflect reality.

The LIFE team was the only group to incorporate interactions into the exhibition, which helped give visitors a more concrete idea of how people and technology might relate in the future.

MatsubaraThat’s right. As a team, we obviously had a lot of internal conversations about our ideas. The exhibition brought that conversation to external audiences, who provided the kind of positive and negative feedback that can fuel improvements and enhance benefits. To me, that commitment to continuing dialogue is what can make society better. Knowing that what we were doing in the present could benefit the future, I think we were able to see 2050—which seemed like such a far-off target at first—as an extension of our current position. What’s the whole point of our work as designers? Raising questions for society to engage with and using design to hypothesizing ideas for moving forward. Getting direct feedback from visitors to the exhibition was really encouraging; it provided us with valuable insights into what people in the world are looking for.

I think writing an actual piece of fiction in the sci-fi genre also makes it easier to prototype ideas from a more society-oriented standpoint. It got me to look beyond my normal focus on the individual user perspective and see the entire service from a more macro standpoint, which gave me a better understanding of how it might impact society on a broader scale. I feel like the project gave me a new perspective in a lot of ways, and that’ll make me better at what I do.

The LIFE team: Morio Omata, Haruka Matsubara, Toshiyuki Kimura, and Saki Kanada

Using narratives to design
the relationships
between individuals and society

Overall, what do you think came out of the project?

OhnoYou tend to see Sci-Fi prototyping play roles in developing business plans or technological strategies; it’s not a common technique in design development. For that reason, I think it was a bit of a trial-and-error approach for both designers and the writers alike. But that’s also part of what made it an eye-opening experience. Dreaming up a story about life in the future, with the full scope of what that entails, made us think about our design ideas from the standpoint of far-reaching social systems. You can’t create a design with the power to make a positive impact on social issues if your focus is too small. The “micro” perspective just isn’t enough. In the years ahead, I think designers will have to develop the ability to understand the connections between individuals and social communities at the micro level, the macro level, and everything in between—and the depth and scope of the story element will be crucial in getting them there. Using narratives to contribute to the bigger conversation, from design and technological development all the way to things like business strategy, is bound to give designers new roles to play.

Created in conjunction with the process of design prototyping, this Future Timeline shows fictional transformations in society and technology through the year 2050. Instead of simply predicting the future, the team employed backcasting (working backward from 2050 to the present) to create the timeline and foster a deeper understanding of the contexts leading to certain events and developments.
* All the information in the graphic is entirely fictional. Nothing in the timeline has any connection with Sony products or services.

We got the opportunity to exhibit our ideas, too, and the results went over well with people from both inside and outside the Sony organization. One visitor said that the event showed how committed Sony designers are to "boldly incorporating cutting-edge technologies but also infusing ideas with a warm, compassionate love for humanity" as they look 30 years down the road—and that’s exactly the message we were trying to send.

Still, all the project did was forecast the future. There’s still so much left to explore. How can we apply the project’s output to the future? What kinds of roles will designers need to play in the societies of tomorrow? I can’t wait to work together to find out what those answers hold.