When Design Fiction Goes Wrong

Last year, I fell in love with a hoverboard. When I found out a few weeks later that it was an elaborate hoax by Funny or Die, I felt like I'd been dumped, punched in the face, and told my cat was killed by wild dogs, all at the same time. Lots of people felt that way—even Tony Hawk apologized for his involvement in the end.

My disappointment was proof not only of how badly I wanted hoverboards to be real, but also how easily I’d been convinced by the video.  Ever since my hoverboard let-down, I've been fascinated by the way videos and photos of imaginary products can influence the decisions and emotions of technologists, innovators, and consumers through what’s becoming known as design fiction.


What is Design Fiction?

My friend Aneesh Karve first introduced me to this relatively new term. It’s becoming increasingly popular in the design and marketing world.

Concept art is a digital or artistic render by which you share your vision with others prior to execution. Architects, animators, and other designers use concept art to communicate visions all the time. Concept art shows a vision that has a clear path to execution—there isn’t a question about whether something can be done, only whether it should be.

Design fiction is something else. It tells a story about a design or a technology that doesn't exist in the real world yet (like my much-lamented hoverboard.)  Think of it as a way to demonstrate how an imaginary thing will change our behavior, the same way a holodeck or a matter transporter changes the narrative in science fiction stories.


Good design fiction conveys a vision, but doesn't try to convince you the vision exists yet.

Consider this Microsoft video from 2010, which shows a clear direction for connected devices that are only now possible.

And don’t forget the famous AT&T ads which focused entirely on the behavior you’ll have, not the tech behind it. These videos convey visions of the of a not-so-distant future without making false claims about what is currently possible.  

Design fiction will be an essential marketing tool for early-stage tech companies, who can test their ideas before actually building something. This in turn tells them whether it’s worth it to solve a super-difficult problem. After all, if there weren't problems to solve, the technology would already exist.


Why bad design fiction should make you angry

There’s a line between design fiction and science fiction that must be respected. Unfortunately, some companies cross that line. Cicret is a great example of terrible design fiction. Check out their video:

Here are some indications that this is a poorly executed piece of design fiction:

  1. Projectors can’t project black. It's just not possible, because = physics. Light doesn't work that way.

  2. The use case is limited to white people with hairless arms.

  3. No accurate touch sensor in the world can detect at that angle, from a bracelet, without occlusion issues.

  4. Even with a laser module you can’t get a clear, square image flush with an arm from that distance... again, light just doesn't work that way.

  5. All projector modules have thermal requirements. You have to vent those puppies. Showing a light based display being used in a bathtub is like demonstrating Sea-Doo tricks on a sand dune.

I could go on about the poor motion tracking in the video. Or the terrible overall idea that an arm display that limits you to typing with one hand is somehow more convenient than a mobile device. But you get the idea. (If you have time to kill, it's totally worth reading the comments under the original video).

Oh, and even though this is obviously not a real thing, people are giving them money.


Designers have a responsibility to present visions as visions, and not as real products.

My concern with this kind of snake-oil marketing is that it can mislead a gullible audience into believing technology can break the laws of physics. Once again, where's my hoverboard??? Perhaps worse, it will create a jaded consumer base that doesn't believe in anything new until it's been built and proven in the real world. That would suck, and stifle innovation, because building an army of believers before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on patents and R&D is part of how small, agile tech companies are able to innovate.

It's important to call out companies that use design fiction improperly so they don't ruin it for the rest of us. Remember: Good design fiction conveys a vision, but it doesn't try to convince you the vision exists yet. If it does, it’s snake oil.