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The Age Of Imagination: A History
of Experiential Futures 2006-2031
Imagination is a critical public resource. However, in
Western culture, as late as the turn of the 21st century, it
was primarily thought of as a fragmented and personal
property of individual consciousness. This paper examines
the recent flourishing of transdisciplinary practices for
cultivating shared public imagination, focusing on the
generation-long period circa 2005-2030, now known as the
Age of Imagination. The historic emergence during this time
of design fiction, together with other experiential futures
practices consciously scaffolding collective imagination,
proved to be a turning point for collective human capacity –
not only, as many initially recognised, for practical design
applications on a modest scale, but also for shaping history
itself. Acknowledging a cultural debt to long-standing and
diverse strands of imaginative activity including storytelling,
theatre, simulation, prototyping, and the 20th century
tradition of futures studies (aka strategic foresight), two
practitioners who helped bring this new tradition into being
pause to look back upon a quarter century of astonishing
change. In the process, they acknowledge the growing
significance of seventh generation ritual computing
technologies to the Age of Imagination.
Experiential Futures; Design Fiction; Prototyping; Immersive
Theatre; Foresight; Futures Studies; Ritual Computing
• Open Access: The author(s) wish to pay for the work to be open
access. The additional fee must be paid to ACM.
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ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation
The history of humanity is also a history of imagination. From cave paintings to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to today’s
neurocinema; from ancient China’s I Ching to Kobayashi Virtual Concern’s groundbreaking Prof-eSee; from the shamans
of Siberia to Tehran’s celebrated back-room imaginists: perhaps nothing is more characteristic of our species than our
incessant manufacture of representations of alternate realities, and the endless quest for possibility’s horizon.
And a good thing, too, for it requires a prodigious act of imagination to remember just how different things were even a
mere generation ago.
Although the story reaches back much further, some sense of the remarkably accelerated uptake and development of
this field can be gained from a brief timeline of the past 25 years. The shift from technology-themed, object-oriented
prototypes of early design fiction  — presented mainly in stand-alone artifacts and videos — towards increasingly
immersive, participatory, synthetic, and richly multidimensional experiential futures may be seen below.
2006 - Science fiction writer and design critic Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence is published, coining the
term ‘design fiction’. 
2006 - “Hawaii 2050”, a statewide public planning process, is launched with a set of four physically immersive
2007 - Several different futures for Honolulu’s Chinatown (respectively exploring the consequences of
gentrification, a bird flu outbreak, and mainland Chinese sponsorship of Hawaiian independence) are brought to
life in the streets via tangible artifacts. Controversy ensues as city officials are temporarily convinced that some
key neighbourhood properties have been gentrifying without a permit. 
2007 - World Without Oil, an early “alternate reality game” set against the backdrop of a hypothetical oil crisis,
launches just months before an actual spike in oil prices. 
2008 - The Museum of Modern Art opens the landmark exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind”, bringing to a
mass audience many “critical design” future artifacts of Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, and their protégés at the
Royal College of Art.  
2008 - A future-dated “special edition” of the New York Times, produced by culture-jamming activists the Yes
Men, invites commuters to celebrate the (hypothetical, obviously) end of the War in Iraq.  
2008 - The world’s first ‘massively multiplayer forecasting game’, Superstruct, is hosted by Institute for the
Future. Thousands of players co-create hypothetical solutions to real problems set in 2019. 
2009 - An alternate reality game about pandemic flu (Coral Cross, funded by the US Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention), is shockingly derailed by an actual pandemic just weeks before launch; a clear
harbinger of the increasing hazards of accelerating change in the present overtaking our imaginings about the
2010 - The Futures of Everyday Life, the first Ph.D. dissertation on the intersection of foresight and design, is
2011 - Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Tunisian press, radio and TV outlets all report from #16Juin2014
for the entire day, helping get the population back to work. 
2012 - ByoLogyc’s 2012 experiment runs in Toronto with a massively multiplayer simulation of a global
pandemic, the “BRX Virus” convincing thousands that the end is nigh. 
2014 - the Body/Mind/Change exhibition at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto invites hundreds of visitors to meld
their minds with a 3D printed and personalized “Pod” neural interface that enables massively unsettling social
2019 - The Pechora River Cult, comprised largely of international HCI experts and operating from an isolated
mining town in Northern Russia, tests a prototype nanotechnological computing platform that mimics the
induction of a shamanic ritual chronicled by explorers in the late 19th century. 
2021 - Fortune cookies distributed in Hong Kong’s posh New Territories invite those who open them to
“Channel their energy into something positive... for everyone. Jambo.” Everyone who ingests the cookies
reports experiencing a profound dream of China’s domination of Central Africa in the year 2064. The originator
of this designed fiction remains unknown, but is suspected to be a nootropic division of the People’s Liberation
2022 - Prof-eSee launches: a supercomputer network designed by Kobayashi Virtual Concern to write and test
natural language scenarios for the futures of the human race. Its outputs are rated by a focus-group of 18,000
individuals and statistically revealed to be better at concocting plausible tales of the future than any human.
The stories it delivers to mass audiences branch off a single scenaric premise that is customized according to
each reader’s social media profile. 
2024 - Prof-eSee is relaunched as Dreamnet on a fully Open Source basis. Transensory renderings and
adaptations of the scenarios are delivered seamlessly across channels as videos, headlines, and the profiles of
fictional characters. The average participant in the program encounters over 168 touchpoints with the future
scenarios created by Dreamnet in a given day. 
2025 - The Finnish electoral process trials a week-long participatory simulation of key candidates’ visions for
the country addressing a (mandatory) twenty-year time horizon. Within three years, the process becomes
standard across the Nordic region. The remainder of the Eurasian Union follows suit by 2030. 
2030 - Last month, at a landmark visiongaming session convened on Dreamnet by the exponentially-growing
Global Governance Meetup, approximately half a billion participants experience a simultaneous epiphany.
Initiates universally refuse to disclose any details of their revelation experience but vocally encourage others to
join the next session. 
A key conclusion which consideration of this historical trajectory invites is the fact, so clear in hindsight, that much of
the initial excitement and thinking surrounding “design fiction” was surprisingly narrow in its focus on technological
artifacts. The meme’s spread gave many designers a welcome and probably overdue opportunity to reframe their craft’s
potential in more creative, speculative terms. However, both the material-object (vs. systemic- contextual)
connotations of the term “design”, and the fanciful connotations of the term “fiction” worked against the wider
realization - which did not arise until experiential futures began to gain currency - that making new stories and
prototypes can take any number of forms. Whatever scaffolds and enables thought and feeling about future possibilities
is fair game. As humans, we’re all “worlding”, all the time - designers just a bit more intensively than most. [Haldenby]
And the more comprehensive or immersive the intervention, the more effectively future-shaping (i.e., catalytic of actual
change) it is liable to be.
A second remark to make is that (perhaps ironically) it is difficult to forecast the impact of the convergence of these
accelerating technosocial trends. Our research points to the crucial importance of creating a new research group within
the Association for Computing Machinery dedicated to further exploration of Human-Future Interaction, as suggested in
2007 by Senator Jason Tester [Tester, personal correspondence], in tandem with the agenda of the Human-Computer
Interaction special interest group.
The impactful innovations and transformative social breakthroughs recounted in the chronology in this abstract might
have sounded like dreams (or nightmares) 50 - or even 20 - years ago, but as we enter the fourth decade of the
twenty-first century, what was once the realm of design fiction has rapidly become reality. The Age of Imagination is
well and truly upon us. Indeed, it’s truer than ever to declare today: the future is already here.
We thank all of the volunteers from OCAD University
and ByoLogyc Inc. in Toronto, Canada, whose
contributions and bodily fluids made this publication
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