Fast forward to future worlds

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Using the blockbuster movie Minority Report as a starting point, Lloyd Ansell analyses how the DVD can be used to create your own vision of a future world

Steven Spielberg? Tom Cruise? What place do these Hollywood giants have in the Damp;T classroom? Last year, they collaborated on the film Minority Report, a pacey action-thriller set in a future where technology is able to predict a murder before it happens. The film is adapted from a short story by Philip K Dick, whose novels and stories offered visions of the future.

There are two possible scenarios for using the double-disc DVDas a classroom tool. One is to view the film itself on disc 1 and discuss the issues generated by what we see. The second is to check out disc 2 and mimic what Spielberg has done - create your own futuristic world.

Spiders that read your eyes to identify you? How would you feel about it happening to you? Could we get our students to think about non-lethal weapons and the moral consequences of designing such objects? What are the implications of using a technology that can predict when people are planning a crime, and incarcerate them before they have committed it, and scanners that allow you to track individuals all over a city? We are already halfway there, with spy satellites, CCTV, feature-recognition software and heat-seeking equipment. The question is not how much further can we go, but how much further should we go?

For pure design themes, play disc 2. You might have to skip past a few too many eulogies, but you will also be able to provide students with a masterclass in collaboration, design innovation and imagination. With contributions from the director and Cruise, plus input from production designers, costume designers, special-effects whizzes and set designers, students will be able to understand how the look and atmosphere of the film were created.

Disc 2 also has an archive section of images showing how the film's individual elements evolved from the drawing-board stage. Spielberg gathered a roomful of leading technologists, as well as experts in crime, transport, the environment, health and society, and asked them to think about what life would be like three or four decades ahead. Their suggestions were incorporated in the film - heat-seeking technology to track fugitives through walls, PreVid screens, eye scanners, robotic spiders, vertical cities, sonic-boom guns, and the ultra-cool MagLev cars were all a result of this futurologist think tank.

Mimicking provides an opportunity to write a story and then create designed objects from the story. Science-fiction writing can be used as an outlet to break unfamiliar ground, to create or be creative. Writing a short fictional story based on a new world can open up all sorts of discussions around what is required or desired in that world.

However, a whole world is a big task, so the future may need to be narrowed down. Students can design a public or private place or object, and redesign it four times to represent changes over a 20-year period. The object should get more futuristic each time.

This forces the question, what makes something more futuristic? There are certain elements we can dictate. The shape is not recognisable; there is a new function - mechanical or electrical. It must also be said that these futuristic objects are innovations whether realisable or not.

In design and technology this is a big hurdle; provoking innovation in this way might be a good tool to get students to think away from the norms they are constrained to. For example, the production designers explain that the eye-catching gestural interface between man and computer was created because Spielberg did not want to see anyone tapping away furiously on a keyboard or using a joystick. The support material can demonstrate to Damp;T students that creativity is as much about problem-solving as it is about having one grand idea.

Follow-up activities

As a task to follow up the film viewing I have asked students to consider two things: are these aspects of the future realistic? And what are the social issues of technology, considering some of the products in the film? The students have each been asked to take one of the film's products and discuss the issues surrounding the item or system. They are considering the validity of the design and how they would know if it was a reasonable prediction.

I asked my class to focus on crime prevention and discuss the film's products, giving special consideration to how designers would think for a film and how they would have to think to plan a product for real life. What considerations would be made for the design and use of the product? Are any similar products already in existence? The constraints on the film designer are different from those on the real-life designer and students will start to realise the thinking skills required for true product design and for futuristic design. They will also realise for themselves the factors in thinking through their own products at A-level and can transfer these skills to their portfolio work during product design and manufacture.

The social issues in the film can create a lot of discussion about eye scanning in public and private places - adverts and subway stations that automatically read your retina and can debit your account or tell you about their products and services. How would students use this technology in other ways? Is it too intrusive? Is this the way they want to live in the year 2054, considering they might be about 68 years old? Is it important to consider the world our children will live in and therefore how they will live?

I believe we need to do this more in Damp;T, we need to generate a serious argument about our designed world and how we consider the future use of technology as opposed to what future products may be able to do and what they might look like. Our students need to be considerate designers as it becomes easier and easier to generate products through rapid prototyping.

New technology does not replace old technology: cassette tapes, vinyl records, CDs, minidiscs and MP3 players are all still in use even if some of them are dying products. Can we design out the need to dispose or discard products? Can disposal-free societies exist in the future? All of these big-picture questions can be raised in context by watching, and then discussing Minority Report.

Minority Report DVD from Twentieth Century FoxPrice: from pound;16.99 to buy; pound;3-pound;3.75 to

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