Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
In his red ‘mad professor’ overalls, Brendan Walker runs through what will happen to me in the next few minutes. After a helmet of 14 electrodes has been fixed to my head, I will be strapped into a pneumatically controlled motion simulator, which is perched precariously above a crowd of people. I will then enter a virtual reality world controlled by my brain.
I’m taking part in Neurosis, billed as ‘the world’s first neuro-driven thrill ride’. It’s an exhibit at Futurefest 2015, a weekend-long event that aims to give visitors a taste of the coming decades. In the future, the brain will be another material for the entertainment industry to play with, says Walker, who as well as a ‘renaissance showman’ is an engineer and designer at the universities of Nottingham and Middlesex, UK.
It is a fascinating idea. Electrical activity across my scalp feed into the experience, and levels of excitement, boredom and focus dictate the frenzy or otherwise of the music, motions and visualizations as I disappear through psychedelic tunnels reminiscent of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The more you concentrate, the easier the ride, so I cheat by doing some mental arithmetic, and hope it doesn’t ruin Walker’s research data.
Futurefest 2015 is the second such event run by Nesta, a UK charity focused on innovation. Formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, it organised last year’s Longitude Prize. The festival’s scope is ambitious: to shine a light on coming trends and show possible futures for democracy, the planet, machines, money, music and thrills.
Held in the cellars and arches of the wine bar Vinopolis on London’s South Bank on 14 and 15 March, the lively event pulled in a crowd of 3,000 people, who appeared as technology savvy and creative as the speakers (only Luciano Floridi – a philosopher and ethicist at the Oxford Internet Initiative who gave a mind-blowing talk on how there is no such thing as ‘things’ – sported a suit). At every turn was a new feast of performances, interactive experiences and talks, by the likes of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whistle-blower Edward Snowden (in virtual form), and human rights barrister Helena Kennedy.
Trends and translations
Predicting the future is, of course, fraught. While global warming and population increase are juggernauts that cannot be stopped, huge uncertainties lie in how we deal with them. In curating the festival, Nesta – an organisation with its feet planted firmly in arts, social entrepreneurship and science camps – seem to have taken plausible trends and translated them to glimpses of possible futures. Often this was insightful and thought-provoking; occasionally the link felt a little tenuous.
One of my favourite exhibits was The Blind Robot, whose robotic arms tentatively explored each volunteer’s face. The intimate experience is not about technology, explained one of the project’s organisers, artist Geraldine Alger, but testing human reactions. Robots that look like humans but miss some crucial details have the ability to make us uncomfortable, she explained; yet interactions with robots may be ubiquitous in the future.
Another delight was BitterSuite, whose performance combined music with taste, smell and touch sensory experiences. As Oxford psychologist Charles Spence explained after the show, some 80-90% of people have common associations between sensations (sweet, for example, goes with red things and high-pitched sounds). Inspired by this, BitterSuite has choreographed a wholly new and intense way to experience classical music, something that may well be popular in a future where stimulating one sense is not enough.
Other events were less satisfying. The installation Emotive City, commissioned for the event, was intended to represent the future of cities, deemed by its creators from the architecture and design company Minimaforms as less top-down and more adaptive and regulated by the people within them. At its heart are robots controlled via their attraction to mobile phone lights, their level of ‘sociability’ dictated by a changing social media stream. Its relevance to self-organised cities was lost on me, and an abstract explanation from the creator left me none the wiser.
A talk and tasting session with food futurologist Morgaine Gaye and chocolatier Paul A Young also left me wondering. Future water shortages could well lead to a new reverence for water, but will it really mean we eat dehydrated vegetables covered in chocolate? The rising price of cacao could make chocolate bars tiny, but will a “fashion for disruption” mean they come in graffiti colours? And will “everyone” have a candyfloss lamp in their house in 2050? The audience for these might have been aspiring marketing executives, not inquiring minds.
At the start of Futurefest, chief executive Geoff Mulgan highlighted how Nesta championed the use of evidence in decision-making. That idea stayed with me throughout; while many of the visions of the future seemed solid, more than once I found myself asking how likely others actually were. Yet, if you can suppress your inner cynic, such playful explorations of possibility can be a pleasurable counterweight to more dystopian scenarios.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.