Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

When conceptualizing a service or product based on data, I first transform visions into a tangible visualization or prototype that anyone in a multi-disciplinary team can feel and understand. Additionally, I generally create Design Fictions that explore possible appropriations of the envisioned data product along its life. Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded. These concepts give a clearer direction on what you are planning to build. They are a powerful material to explain the new data product to others and they act as a North Star for a whole team has a shared vision on what they might to want build.

Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded.

This is the approach I aimed to communicate last week in a 5-days workshop at HEAD design school in Geneva to an heterogeneous group of students coming from graphic design, engineering, business or art backgrounds.

The syllabus of the 5-days workshop
The syllabus of the 5-days workshop

Part 1: Sketching with Data

Sketching with DataThe first part of the workshop was dedicating to become familiar with the theories and practices related to data science, data visualization, and information design. Along with Julian Jamarillo from Bestiario, we introduced different ways of extracting insights from data and convey a message effectively from the simple result of a collaborative filtering algorithm to the proper use of a map or a chart. The main objective for the students was to acquire a hands-on experience visualizing data and transform them into small stories.

The day of a bike sharing systemFor instance, through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc. It only took a full day of sketching with data with Quadrigram, for participants to start write and tell small stories about crime in San Francisco or mobility in Barcelona. Embedded as a data-driven web page, we motivated students to provide a critical eye on the current hype about big data: What are the limitations? Do they tell a story but not THE story? Consequently, we discussed the notions of trust, quality and integrity of the sources, the ownership of personal data, and the subjectivity in many design decisions to convey a message.

Through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc.

Part 2: Creating implications

Creating implicationsIn the second part of the workshop we projected into the future the datasets and their stories. We started to imagine a future service, product, solution that link data to fashion, entertainment, the environment, social relations, etc. Using an approach called Design Fiction, we encouraged participants to build elements of a possible data product without being too precious or detailed about them. The aim was to spark conversations about the near future of data, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives.

A Design Fiction approach to bring a technology to the world starts by anticipating how people could co-evolve with it. Instead of designing for Time 0 (T) when people start using a data product or service, I believe it is important to consider the evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product (e.g. what happens to my data when I retire my Fitbit into my box of old devises).

The evolution of the user experience
The evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product. Inspired by Matt Jones’ Jumping to the End talk .

Hence, in our workshop, similar to Amazon’s Working Backward process of service design, we asked students to write first a press release that describes in a simple way what a potential data product does and why it exists. The format of the press release is practical because it is not escapist. It forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem (e.g. who built it, who uses it, what does it complement, what is it built with?).

Writing a fictional press release forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem. Quite naturally it leads to listing Frequently Asked Questions with the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for.

With the press release in hands, the next exercise consisted in “cross-pitching” their concepts for 2 minutes to each other. Quite naturally, from the questions that came up during the exchange some participants started to list the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). The FAQ includes the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for. That exercise forced participants to consider the different situations and frictions users could have along the life of a product.

As the concepts clarified, we sketched storyboards of use cases and mocked up interfaces that described in more details the user experience with the product. Finally, each embryonic concepts of data product became alive with the production of a piece of design fiction.

Creating implicationsIn Design Fiction, we use cheap and quick content production material (e.g. video, data visualization, print, interface mockups, …) to make things (e.g. diegetic prototypes) as if they were real. For instance, one student project took the form of the user manual of a smart jacket that shows how a customer should use it, what personal data are exploited, how the information is revealed.

This type of exploration serves to design-develop prototypes and shape in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today. It served at considering the data product and its implications. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. They are some sort of “boundary objects” that allow heterogeneous groups of participants to understand with a common language the exploitation of data and their instantiation into a product or service.

Some of the created and discussed implications include the Fashion Skin jacket that explore through a user manual the affordance of smart clothes and how people might interact with contextual information. The press release says:

The Fashion’Skin, with its unique sensing and adaptive fabric, is a revolution in the fashion and the smart clothing landscapes. It is always accorded to the people’s feelings, the weather, or the situation, without compromise. The fabric can change its color, its texture and its form.

Others looked at the data intake rituals of the near future and the hegemony of mean-well technologies with Noledge a data patch that transfer knowledge on languages directly into your brain. Here is its unboxing video.

Almost all groups looked at the virtues and pitfall of feedback loops. For instance Real Tennis Evo for the Wiii that models data generated with Wilson-Sony rackets into simulations of one-self. The game cover advertises that “you can improve your skills by playing against your real self at home”.

Real Tennis Evo
The next generation mixed reality tennis experience: Real Tennis Evo.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life.

Take aways

Data visualizations, prototypes and design fiction are ‘tools’ to experiment with data and project concepts into potential futures. They help uncover the unknown unknowns, the hidden opportunities and unexpected challenges.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life. They help form a concept and evaluate its implications. The approach works well for abstract concepts because it forces you to work backward and explore the artifacts or the byproducts linked to your vision (e.g. a user manual, an advertisement, a press release, a negative customer review …). Eventually the approach encourages considering the ecosystem affected by the presence of a data product: What do people do with it over time? Where are the technical, social, legal boundaries?

Thanks to Daniel Sciboz and Nicolas Nova for the invitation, Julian Jamarillo and Bestiario to share their practice and Quadrigram and the students of HEAD and HEG for their creativity, energy and capacity to leave their comfort zone in design, engineering, business and art.

Our Approach of Design Fiction

One of our objectives at Near Future Laboratory is to help carry Design Fiction to maturity and any interrogation or critique from the public is a source of reflection and an opportunity for describing our understanding as to what Design Fiction is, how it’s best practiced, and in what ways it can evolve.

We frequently receive requests from journalists, students, fellow practitioners and clients to describe Design Fiction and shed some light on our approach as a micro-multinational company. All the questions are legitimate as Design Fiction was, not a long time ago, still an emerging practice. We have gathered here a potpourri of the recent recurrent questions. Many thanks to their authors for their curiosity.

This is the Q&A on our approach of Design Fiction as of Summer 2015.

We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds

Q — You are working on future exploration. How is speculation incorporated in your work?

NFL — At The Near Future Laboratory, three of us have a background in academic research, and one in industrial design, all with a proven experience of multi/inter/un-disciplinary work. We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds. We grew interest in design and how designers work, and think there is a strong potential in connecting between these two fields, future and design. This appeared particularly true with the recent increasing capacity to design, build and prototype tangible things fast and at low budget.

In 2009, we chose the notion of Design Fiction and began to develop it. We started to investigate how design can help to materialize and to make tangible scenarios about a near future by using very mundane artefacts that we can craft and design. We introduced and appropriated the term ‘diegetic prototypes’ to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence. These technologies only exist in the fictional world — what film scholars call the diegesis — but they exist as fully functioning objects in that world. For instance, we produced catalogs, newspapers or user manuals from the future, which are objects that could be designed to exemplify and to materialize these scenarios about possible futures for clients as well as for our own investigations.

Today, for each project we engage with a growing list of Design Fiction archetypes (e.g. unboxing videos, user reviews), we test alternative approaches, draw their processes and debate the best practices of Design Fiction.

Somebody’s future is somebody else’s present. We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions.

Kourier phone

Q — What is the difference between your work at the Near Future Laboratory and that of other more traditional designers?

NFL — We are a bit peculiar in our studio structure. We are what you might call a ‘micro-multinational’ company with headquarters in Venice Beach, San Francisco, Geneva and Barcelona. We came together through our academic careers, but mostly driven through our curiosities about the emerging practices of a peculiarly transforming world — the networked world. As academics, we were trained to question and interrogate emerging social, technological, cultural practices that we observed — and there were plenty of weird emerging social practices around the first, second and third dot-com events. Those observations led us to consider implications and consequences, and develop our own set of techniques for understanding and then communicating our insights.

The Near Future Laboratory crew

We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions. For instance in TBD Catalog we depict a fantastic near future translated into its inevitably fraught, low-battery, poor reception, broken firmware, normal, ordinary, everyday sensibilities. It is neither boom, nor bust. It is just the near future as if it was now.


We have largely eschewed the traditional academic channels of research papers, academic conference talks and the like. Producing evocative little pamphlets, fictional product catalogs, software that is quite counter to prevailing intuition about what software should be, little hardware devices that are designed to be used less rather than more — these are the kinds of provocations we like to produce. Not academic papers or typical research studies. We found it more engaging and more to our own individual sensibilities to produce material that was available to larger, more public audiences. We also have a strong instinct towards making things — props, prototypes, objects, software, devices, films — that we felt told stories about implications of modern society more effectively than pure academic prose.

Q — Which are the steps of the process of thinking and designing a new and still unknown product?

NFL — Depending on projects and client, the starting point of a Design Fiction can be a new technology (e.g. self-driving cars), evidences of a practice (e.g. gestural interaction with technology), a vision described in a few sentences (e.g. the bank of the future), a full investigation (e.g. the future of water) or a whole field (e.g. big data in sport). Alternatively, we developed our own Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit  to help define the core elements of a designed product.


Then we run materialization of conversations amongst a small group often composed of a mix of visual/industrial/product designers, makers, researchers, curators, creatives, engineers and writers. Together we express the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the inhabitants of some envisioned near future. Also, we consider the evolution of the ways and means of production of the near future, as well as shifts in the dynamics of creativity, law, norms, economic models, aesthetic, social and personal values and incumbent measures of cultural achievement.  We then turn talk into deliberate actions and artifacts (i.e. “diegetic prototypes”), that is material from a near future represented as fully functioning objects in that world: a product catalogue, a manual, an app, a Kickstarter, a magazine, advertisement, popular book review or cover jacket, news broadcast, talk show interview, unboxing video, medical prescription, a video showing a days in the life of a particular character, etc.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions.

Q — What is the aim of designing products that do not really exist? Or asked differently, how do you know that the future will be approximately like the one you describe?

NFL — Design Fiction doesn’t so much “predict” the future. It is a way to consider the future differently; a way to tell stories about alternatives and unexpected trajectories; a way to discuss a different kind of future than the typical bifurcation into utopian and dystopian.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions. We propose and build elements of a possible future without being too precious or detailed about them. Our aim is to spark conversations about the near future, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives. Our work serves to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today.

For instance in our Pilot Helios Quick Start Guide, we consider what would be the experience of a self-driving car owner: when driving, no driving, when using the car in an automatic mode or not. We listed the main issues about how to adapt to that, the problem that may appear, the kind of regulation likely to be adopted, etc. Since we worked with a good group of 15 designers from various part of the world to do that, the answers were quite broad and enabled us to embrace a wide range of options that describe how such service may come to be.

The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories


Q — In your Design Fictions, do you also take into account the technical characteristics of the products and services?

NFL — With our engineering backgrounds, we are fairly aware of the technical features of a device and the technologies that lay beneath them. However, technical constraints do not lead to fertile creative process and discussions. We do not stop to think that — because something is not technologically possible or too expensive today — it should be removed from consideration. What if there is a breakthrough or what is there are legal, social, ethical or economic changes that make a certain limitation become possible? We want our clients or the public in general to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible and focus on the implications for the company, a product, its customers and society in general, because our techno-cultural-political world is weird.

Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life and the standard objects or services that might fill possible futures.


Q — What is your interest in using Design Fiction methods when it comes to deal with possible futures?

NFL — We do not position ourselves as “optimists” or “pessimists” when it comes to technological evolutions. We are not exuberant about the future of 3D printing, nor Google-powered autonomous vehicles. At the same time, we aren’t apocalyptics who believe Algorithms will lead us to Terminator-like smoldering ruin. We are not in the business of making predictions — rather, we make multiple propositions meant to lead to productive conversations about what’s next. Creating representations of our perspectives in material form produces these conversations and discussions. This is our goal.

To contrast with other similar design approaches, we think Design Fiction is a bit different from critical design, which is a bit more abstract and theoretical compared to our own interest in design happening outside of galleries or museums. Design Fiction is about exploring a future mundane. It tackles a future-oriented problem or opportunity with an everyday-object to address it to anyone who could be concerned in few years.

In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe that the 5-10-30 years timeline is no longer useful today

The old models of scenario planning from the mid-century and newer models referred to as design research from the late 20th century considered to future to be 5-10-30 years forward. In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe this timeline is no longer useful today. The effects of the network, the ways and pace by which ideas circulate, the availability of exceptional scales of funding and resources for even the craziest of ideas by very anxious, eager, intrepid entrepreneurs, the importance of “fixing” the world’s problems much quicker than 10 years — all of these indicate that we need a new set of tools to develop solutions to our ideas that don’t work at the old-fashioned scales of large governments and world organizations. We need tools, approaches and ways of thinking that are based on the pace of the modern human creative apparatus, that can find possibilities in unexpected places that are not known in advance. This is what Design Fiction is able to do and why it is an important creative design tool.

That being said, our interest is not to focus on abstract and theoretical perspectives, but rather to make people conscious about certain changes and opportunities. They can be technological, social or political. This goal makes us think about the right artifact or the right format to start a discussion with people about these stakes and uncover hidden perspectives. When we say people, we mean anybody, not necessarily specialists. Hence, we are interested in very mundane and banal type of artifacts to create this discussion. It’s not necessarily about making people believe that these things have already happened in reality, with a fictional product for example, but to raise awareness that there are weird possibilities and changes going on.

Unlike other foresight studies which remain generally quite polished and theoretical, we are less formal in our approach. We do not invest too much time in measuring and analyzing the macro variables of change, the “big shifts” or “large crisis”. We are influenced by design and have a more implicit way of operating that starts with finding the appropriate representations of a possible future. Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life (e.g. the rituals, the behaviors, the frictions), its short term evolutions (3-5 years) and the standard objects or services that might fill these possible futures. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. This emphasis on the relation of individuals with technology contrasts with classical future scenarios that analyze the world at longer terms and a large range of variables.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition.




Q — You make your work public in museums, galleries, magazines and your shop, but is Design Fiction useful for companies?

NFL — We divide our efforts between self-initiated projects that we make public and private consultancy for clients. Projects like TBD Catalog showcase the influence of designers, writers, researchers, entrepreneurs, artists and engineers in our approach of Design Fiction. Design Fiction demands creative skills as much as a capacity to understand and analyze the world, technologies, people and its evolutions. Companies approach us for our multi/inter/un-disciplinary points of view as well as our ability to propose potential near futures. Their requests rarely specifies a need for “Design Fiction”. Rather, the discussion with clients often from R&D, Innovation, or Marketing starts with more specific needs around the development of new products or services and strategic choices related to them.

Design Fiction is one approach among others, but its contribution focus on the near future and is tangible. For instance, instance of participating to workshops of multi-disciplinary experts with a powerpoint filled with ideas for a technology, we propose to create the user manual for the envisioned product or produce a video that showcases how an employee appropriates the technologies with its features and limitations. These artifacts are meant to materialize changes, opportunities and implication in the use of technologies. They particularly point out details in situations of use with the objective to avoid a “general discussion”. For instance in our Quick Start Guide project, the outcome of that Design Fiction is not the guide per se. Rather the outcome is the discussions provoked by the many diverse “real” situations described in the guide and that highlight the challenges, the issues, the frictions and the necessity to think a service into its details.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition. For instance TBD Catalog is an alternative to traditional ways of imagining, constructing and discussing possible near futures. Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper or bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project, we wanted to present the results in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exist as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

The point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts

Q — In projects like TBD Catalog are the products already invented or did you thought about all of them? Where did you take the ideas from?

NFL — Ideas and concepts come from our research mixed with evidences, imagination and dialog between people of multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Because the future is unevenly distributed and somebody’s future is somebody else’s present it is common to stumble on some concepts that are already real products/services or Kickstarter projects. Our approach is then to consider what these objects, products or service might feel or look like in one, two or three iterations? Or how might people talk about them in the near future? We don’t actually care at all if our creative process comes up with some idea that someone else has already imagined, discussed, built or sketched. The point is not to be “the first” — the point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts.

Q — Which kind of improvement could be brought to your approach of Design Fiction? For instance, do you look at methods and tools borrowed from ethnography?

NFL — In projects like Curious Rituals, we employed our expertise in ethnography particularly to study and understand people’s behavior, people’s habits and their rituals, with technologies . So far we have not used ethnographic methods after the production of a Design Fiction, but mostly before as a way to feed the design process. However, there is surely something interesting to think about, in terms of getting back to the people who shaped our perspective about the future and to explain what we did with all their insights. There is also room for exploration on that side.

The World Of Self-Driving Cars

It’s easy to get all..Silicon Valley when drooling over the possibility of a world chock-full of self-driving cars.

The fact of the matter is that a world where self-driving cars are a reality will be as prickly as the world today, only Algorithms will be the source of our frustration rather than other least until the underground of self-driving car retrofits, mods and hacks come along and everything goes all amuck despite Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon’s best efforts to convince us things are better..

SF Chron_2_REV


It’s easy to speculate breathlessly about the world of the future when the self-driving car is normal, ordinary and everyday. However, when an idea moves from speculation to designed product the work necessary to bring it into the world means that it is necessary to consider the many facets of its existence — the who, what, how, when, why’s of the self-driving car. To address these questions we took a sideways glance at it by forcing ourselves to write the quick-start guide for a typical self-driving car.

A Quick Start Guide as Design Fiction Archetype

To spark a conversation around the larger questions regarding a technology that could substantially change mobility in the future we followed a Design Fiction approach to produce this Quick Start Guide.

Our Quick Start Guide is a 14-page z-fold document from the near future. It’s a reminder that every great technology needs instructions for the uninitiated. That instruction may be a document, a tutor from a friend, ‘rider’ instructions — something that gives a feel of the things car owners might do first and do often with their first self-driving vehicle. Get your copy.


This Design Fiction archetype is a natural way to focus on the human experiences around complicated systems. It implies a larger ecosystem that indeed may be quite complex. It also allows one to raise a topic of concern without resolving it completely — often an approach that’s necessary in order to not be bogged down in details before it’s necessary. For example, mentioning that it costs more to park your car rather than sending it back on the roadway as a taxi is a way to open a conversation about such a possibility and its implications for reclaiming space used by parking garages. In the Quick Start Guide, you will find:

  • What do you do if you forget a bag of groceries — or your sleeping child — after sending your self-driving car off for the evening to earn a few shekels in ‘Uber’ mode?
  • Is there a geo-fencing mechanisms to control where the car goes — and how fast it goes?
  • How do you activate and lock the “Child Safe Mode” for your teenage son to take to football practice?
  • Does it conform to ISO1851 Codified Child Rearing Mandates and Findings?
  • How does the car pickup groceries — and how do you upload the list — when you send it on errands?
  • Will you pick a car based on the size and features of its Cold-n-Hot Grocery Trunk?
  • What do you do when the display shows “Unknown Profile”?
  • Does your self-driving car obey the most recent DoT Emergency Maneuvers requirements?
  • How do you activate ValetPark®, Amazon PrimeValet®, EverDrive™, RE-FRESH™ and of course the agnostic Interior Ambience by Amazon®?
  • Which countries/protectorates/jurisdictions allow a total car history reset?
  • How to install your Dynamic Insurance plug-in from your insurance providers’ download site?
  • What supplementary fees does the car charge for using Apple Roadways?
  • And more…




The Design Fiction Workshop

The Quick Start Guide was produced as part of a workshop at IxDA 2015 in collaboration with students from the California College of the Arts and conference participants. In a short amount of time, we  identified the key systems that implicate the human aspects of a self-driving car and we brought to life such experiences in a very tangible, compelling fashion for designers, engineers, gurus, and anyone else involved in the development of a technology. Through the collective production of Quick Start Guide it became a totem through which we could discuss the consequences, raise design considerations and hopefully shape decision making.

The Design Fiction approach led to:

  • Better thinking around new products, a richer story and good, positive, creative work.
  • Identify topics that may not come up when discussing the larger system.
  • Create rather than just debate, and represent topics concisely to focus the work and challenge us to describe features succinctly.
  • Experience the consequences and implications of a world with self-driving vehicles.





The Assumptions

Visions of exciting future things rarely look at the normal, ordinary, everyday aspects of what life will be like to turn the thing on, fix a data leak, set a preference, manage subscriber settings, address a bandwidth problem, initiate a warranty request for a chipped screen or increase storage. It’s those everyday experiences — after the gloss of the new purchase has worn off — that tell a rich story about life with a self-driving vehicle. In this project, we made a few category assumptions.

  1. The self-driving vehicle is all about the data. When Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and/or Apple become part of the vehicle “ecosystem” — either by making cars, having their operating system integral to the car, owning roadways or whatever their strategy teams are dreaming up — they will do it because #data. To them it will be about knowing who is going where, when they’re going there, to get what; it will be about knowing when your tires are wearing down; it will be to give you discounts when send your car to get Pizza Hut for dinner; it will be to have your car go through the Amazon Pantry Pickup Warehouse to do your grocery shopping. The data.
  2. As fundamental as mobility is to humans, owning a network of millions of interoperable vehicles is big business. Apple’s vehicle ecosystem will be always moving, as will Google-Uber’s. It will cost you more to park your self-driving car because it can earn money for them (and maybe you) by putting it into “Taxi” or “Uber” mode when it’s dropped you off at work. This led us to consider what one might need to do if one’s car has strangers in it while you’re at work, or the movies, or asleep. And what will happen to all those parking garages?
  3. Roadways will be the new platform play. How will (or will not) roadways that are owned by Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and/or Apple interoperate? Will Google have the best, fastest, least congested roadways in Los Angeles? What are the consequences of switching to semi-partial manual drive mode? What happens when those Fast and Furious guys figure out how to jailbreak their vehicle’s OS and supercode the engine?

Get Your Quick Start Guide

To experience those assumptions, get the copy of your first self-driving car Quick Start Guide.

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The Quick Start Guide is a Near Future Laboratory project produced based on a workshop at IxDA 2015 in collaboration with students from the California College of the Arts and conference participants:

  • Rafi Ajl (CCA)
  • Phil Balagtas (GE Global Research)
  • Sankalp Bhatnagar (Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Julian Bleecker (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Maru Carrion-Lopez (CCA)
  • Wendy Cown (Charles Schwab & Co.)
  • Bill DeRouchey (Aviation GE)
  • Blake Engel (Nextbit)
  • Nick Foster (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Cristina Gaitan (CCA)
  • Susan Hosking (GE Global Research)
  • Shani Jayant (Intel)
  • Flemming Jessen (Designit)
  • Zhouxing Lu (Indiana University Bloomington)
  • Chris Noessel (Cooper)
  • Anna Mansour (Intel)
  • Nicolas Nova (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Angelica Rosenzweigcastillo (GE Global Research)
  • Margaret Shear (Margaret Shear | Experience Design)
  • Liam Woods (CCA)
  • Aijia Yan (Google).

Special thanks to John Sueda, Ben Fullerton and Raphael Grignani.

Why Silicon Valley Hates TBD Catalog

TBD Catalog. It started as a workshop-based collaboration with 19 humans and a few algorithms who willingly allowed me to shepherd them through the thoughts in my head and help show what the world may be like in some odd but likely near future — represented as a product catalog rather than some old-fashioned output like a white paper or blog post.

TBD Catalog tells a story about the world we are likely to inhabit if the current moment’s exuberance for the things it gets exuberant about continues at its boom-bust cycle pace.

What exuberance am I talking about?

This exuberance for “disruption”, handcrafted algorithms, security, 3D printers, The Cloud, luxury-bespoke bicycle seats, bigger and bigger self-serving Big Data “data points”, stacks and stacks of weird service APIs, consumer-focused technical gadgets, an Internet of Things where everything is connected to everything (whatever that means), food printers, the end of privacy, algorithmic publishers beating up normal publishers, artisanal hand crafted lickity-split buzzy drone delivery, hype-curves with spectacular riches at the end, connected toilets, saws & axes, and etcetera.

This is an exuberance that we might generally localize to Silicon Valley California. It can now be said that this exuberance has spread to other geographic centers of unbridled enthusiasm, what with the San Francisco/Silicon Valley sprawl bursting at the seams with its $5000 a month studio “apartments” and its general lack of space for people to live and work and get a goddamn burrito that actually makes sense.

Maybe that’s not fair.


Hold on — yes it is.

Although, okay — to appear to be fair I’ll say that Silicon Valley isn’t all that bad, even if it is sometimes quite severely selfish and myopically misguided.

A guy in his living room with a six pack of beer can have some bad ideas about what to do in the afternoon — shoot tin cans off the back fence, surveil his neighbor with a drone, maybe do dirt bike donuts on his neighbors front yard after those beers are gone.

A guy in his living room with $6 billion can have a normatively bad idea about what to do, and do real damage to normal, ordinary everyday humans.

Wait. Where was I?


Oh right. TBD Catalog. A catalog of ideas, extrapolations, insights, points of view, opinions, statistically likely conclusions, satire (which is only satire until it comes to pass, like an App that says “Yo!” which would’ve been the kernel of a good joke until someone thought it would make a better App than a joke and now it’s no longer funny) — all represented as stuff that goes in your home. It’s also the weird crap you find at the checkout counter of your local corner convenience store. And your friendly, neighborhood Data Plumber who advertises on a badly Xeroxed flyer crumpled and shoved through your mail slot or slipped under the windshield wipers of your used self-driving Hyundai Siestafore..the one with the hacked Android DriveOS so you can take it off-road on the weekends without the disturbingly angelic Johannson bot voice you lease for $3.99/month warning you every 15 seconds “’ve strayed off course. Please return to Highway 101.”

TBD Catalog is a container of ideas — some which may come to pass, some which probably already exist, some which definitely already exist in some form and some other things that are just plain brilliant ideas that no one in their right mind would dedicate a single dollar bill to create. Cause #ROI.

What is this TBD Catalog then? What does it do that these pre-modern techniques for creative strategizing do not do?

Design Fiction

It’s a collection of micro-fictions, little stories done up to take the form of a product catalog. They are symptoms of a future world. Each product an implication — all collectively implying the lived experience of someone’s likely normal ordinary everyday near future habitat. These are evocative little Macguffin-like clues at what you know may likely come to pass.

Producing a hint of a whiff of the near future is an alternative narrative strategy to the grand vision the old-fashioned futurists were likely to offer. And, ultimately — it’s this alternative narrative element that the PowerPoint deck and the ThinkTank white paper cannot offer. Those simply kill the fun in good, creative design work. They deaden the creative nervous system ruining the possibility of doing good design — of feeling inspired and invigorated. No one was ever invigorated by your typical PowerPoint or 87 page White Paper, were they?

Internet of Things Design Fiction

What are some of these Macguffins? TBD Catalog includes everything. Food to toilets. End-to-end solution, as they say. Life, love, loss, loungewear. From the future of ice cubes to the disposal of 3D printer waste material to “revolutionary” wound-spring PowerPaks.

In TBD Catalog you’ll find a whole thriving business ecosystem of data mangling and an underground of techniques and instruments to allow one to commit “servicide” — that’s social network suicide. There’s everything from shoddy, rusted out old surplus data manglers to the valet-clad, braided epaulet luxury vacation packages where you and your loved ones can hide or expunge all your data trail with the exclusivity and privacy you’ve come to expect from your privileged life.

Algoriture Design Fiction


What sort of world does TBD Catalog come from? What is that near future it is telling us we may likely occupy?

It’s a world where Google and Facebook (or whatever they become) use data analytics to find your child’s perfect algorithmically matched playmate — and their probable soul mate.

It’s an “Internet of Things” world where everything, including the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you, is connected to everything else.

It’s a world where bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature are written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

Design Fiction

TBD Catalog intimates a world in which the well-heeled summon — as they do Uber cars today — on-demand force-presence security operators to help them recover their lost or stolen iPhone or shepherd them around Burning Man or Coachella.

In the near future of TBD Catalog luxury ice cubes are available for an extra fee in a drought-burdened world, 3D printers require child-safe locks to prevent printing choking hazards, modern plumbers plumb the erratic, clogged data drains of your analytics-generating connected home, and the number one film is 48% crowd funded and 64% algorithm written and the director is a bit of software written by some programmer in Sierra Leone.


That’s TBD Catalog. That’s the “what.”

In Part 2, I’ll talk about Design Fiction — the “how.”

For now — check out TBD Catalog and get your copy. Also, read @sarahrich’s review: Your Mail-Order Future

The Future Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Don’t Want You To See


I want to share with you the latest book project from the Near Future Laboratory. It’s called TBD Catalog — the Design Fiction product catalog for the normal ordinary everyday near future.

You can get your own copy of TBD Catalog here in our own shop. We’re also a publisher now, in the modern sense.

TBD Catalog contains 166 products, 62 classifieds and advertisements to tell little stories about the world we are likely to inhabit if the exuberant venture capitalist handlers and computer programming day laborers of Silicon Valley have their way.

It’s a future quite different from the perfect, seamless, integrated, one-touch, Cloud-based advertising fakery used to make your pupils dilate with “wantfulness” — a want for cute connected family robots, software and plastic dongles ‘made with love’ and self-driving cars with impish earnest eager bumper faces and $9 drip coffee made with algorithmic precision and ordered ahead from an App.

The future represented in TBD Catalog starts with Silicon Valley’s breathless visions — and plops it down on the counter of your corner bodega. This is the future that comes in party colors. It’s the 3/$1.00 and buy one get one free future. Got your iPhone stolen? In the TBD future, if you’ve got ‘Find My Phone’ enabled, just use your Call For Backup App — we’ll send some licensed and disciplined toughs fresh back from Spec-Ops to knock on doors, fold their arms and growl imposingly if necessary. It’s the Uber of semi-private personal security.


Design Fiction


Design Fiction


With TBD Catalog our technique for employing Design Fiction was to follow today’s major “tech” trends and see where their hyperbole might likely wind up in some likely normal ordinary everyday near future — 3D Printers; Internet of Things; the Algorithmic Life; The Cloud; Machine Intelligence; New Funding Models; Mass Customization; Etcetera.

The TBD Catalog future is the near future ordinary. The constant low power and exploding battery future. The bad firmware bricked $800 device future. The lousy customer service phone menu UX and busted algorithms that send a hundred emails to the same customer and shift-reload doesn’t clear the error future. The bad monopoly network service conglomerate run like an accounting firm future.

That world. The one when ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ — after all the glitzy wearables/internet-of-things/self-driving car Kickstarter advertising TechCrunch blogger promises dull to their likely normal.

We did TBD Catalog because no one else has done so much to tell a story about the likely future beyond excruciating, mind-numbing white papers, link-bait blog posts and breathless “insights” from strategy agency reports that read as though they’re in league with the pundits who all basically work for the startups anyway. We wanted a perspective that was engaging, entertaining and probable while also insightful, generative and provocative.

Take a look around amongst the strata of futurists, insights reports, strategy assessments, TED Talks and the like. There is little to go on to ruminate about these trends beyond the vague “imagine a world..” fantasy scenarios and dreamy video pitches with earnest mandolin soundtracks. There are scant stories about a world when these trend-things are fully-vested within our lives in a way that doesn’t seem like the boom-cycle perfect world advertisement where we 3D print fresh licensed Opiline knife sets. The stories we get are either perfect utopia futures or the robot-zombie apocalyptic busted future with fascist jetpack cops chasing down malcontents.

TBD Catalog cuts through the middle to tell stories from a world where Nobel Prize winning technology is sitting on the counter of your corner liquor store in 23 different colors, all with a keychain and instructions on how to entertain your cat. This “ordinary” story is the one we’re working towards. These are the stories that are in short supply. Stories about our world when the extraordinary idea makes its inevitable journey to become the ordinary commodity thing that occasionally needs repair or a software patch for a security flaw.

TBD Catalog creates these sorts of stories by hinting at the implications of today’s ‘disruptions’ — by representing the kinds of products and services we might imagine in the near future and implying little corners of that near future world and the social lives around it. In TBD Catalog each product, service, classified advertisement and customer review is a bit of Design Fiction — a mix of trending topic plus designed object plus a small evocative story-description. Each Design Fiction is a little story about life in our likely near future world.

What are some of the stories in TBD Catalog?

TBD Catalog tells a story about a world in which every household has as many 3D printers as they now have electric toothbrushes, and a lease-licensed 3D printer material waste disposal unit.


Design Fiction




Algoriture Design Fiction

TBD Catalog reveals a world with bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature optimized for trends, tastes and expectations and written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

What about a world in which algorithms are so trusted, we allow them to find a playmate for our children, or the perfect “soul mate” for ourselves when we turn 18.

Internet of Things Design Fiction


MeWee Monitor hints at what an Internet of Things world might look like if everything — the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you and the chamber pot you sit upon  — is connected to everything else, and lets the world know what it’s doing.

Why did we do a product catalog from a likely future? The Near Future Laboratory is of the opinion that whatever “comes next” should be prototyped not just in hardware and software (which we do, and enjoy) but through compelling, engaging, tangible moments that play out near future scenarios. Not only the spot-on-perfect advertiser-scripted scenarios, but the more likely and realistic moments as well. This sort of prototyping has imminent value as a means of shaping an idea, reflecting on contingencies, making things better and feel more full-vested in the world.

Design Fiction is a form of prototyping an idea. It’s a way of  reflection that can take an idea, trend or concept and intimate it in a more material form that can generate conversations that then reshape the idea into something better. Design Fictions have a remarkable ability to make that materialized concept come to life in a much more embodied way than specifications, one-pager or items in a PowerPoint bullet list. TBD Catalog’s Design Fictions take the promise of extraordinary and weird Silicon Valley aspirations and turn them into the normal and ordinary props that come to life as part of our everyday lives.

Design Fictions have exceptional value from a pragmatic perspective. They are more than entertainment. Design Fiction can operate as a viable approach to design itself — a form of exercising hunches without committing to full-blown execution. Design Fiction can find the tangential implications and alternative possibilities of your instincts — and then show a path forward towards sketching, testing and materializing your ideas. As a catalog in which your idea might exist in the future. As a fictionalized quick start guide. As an instruction manual or bug report. As a blogger’s review or customer service script.

Design Fiction is a creative instrument. It is truly a form of prototyping. It is an approach to design and strategic foresight that is actually generative. Design Fictions provide the basis for viable ideas, even in the idiom of satire. In their second reads, they become more — each of the 166 products has a “..huh” moment. There are dozens and dozens of Kickstarters in here, surely. And a few things in TBD Catalog we here at the Near Future Laboratory have actually prototyped — for real. Even some we’re pursuing after having our own “..huh..that could work..” revelation.

Let me be clear — we here are not opposed to the “next new thing.”  We are eager to entertain. But also — we focus on creating ‘next new things’ everyday. TBD Catalog is meant to remind us that every cool trend, every ‘wow’ gadget, and even some Nobel Prize-winning technologies become entertainment devices for our house cats or a faster way to stream crappy online ads. We need those kinds of likely near future representations — as alternative as they are to the glowing reports in your favorite trends blog — to focus ourselves on the challenges this world faces in light of rapidly changing behaviors, expectations, desires, rituals and algorithms.

Welcome to your near future normal ordinary everyday.

Buy TBD Catalog
Check out the work kit we used to create the products
Read more about Design Fiction

A fictional newspaper from 2018 that imagines possible futures of data and football


How will the so-called beautiful game of global football be different in a world where sport itself, and the culture of the fans who love it, is altered by the rush of data, quantification, analytics and digital delivery? What might a high-stakes match of the near future be like when every move is measured, and every tactic forecast by silicon? What will the technologically savvy supporter and the lifelong fan alike experience differently when Big Data takes on the game?

Launched at the National Football Museum in Manchester last week, our latest project, Winning Formula, explores these questions and some of the more unreal features of data-driven football future.


Winning Formula touches on more easily seen aspects of performance analytics, and new ways to depict and consume football in media, but also explores near-future possibilities hiding just below the surface, possible phenomena such as data manipulation as a kind of doping, the impacts of high-frequency sport betting, or politics related to data-based services like media, measurement and reporting. Commissioned by National Football Museum, Future Everything and CCCB, the result of our investigation takes the form of a newspaper sports section from April 2018. This hypothetical daily European tabloid called ‘Today’ is an exemplar of the way we use narrative and Design Fiction to create an engaging, thought-provoking perspective on a possible, plausible near future world that need not result in either a PowerPoint deck nor corporate white paper. The mundane form of a disposable daily newspaper, coming to you from April 2018 puts into the hands of everybody a possible day in the future when data, both large and small, alters some aspects of sports, from training to commentary, enhancements to prosthetics, rulings to viewing.

Winning Fomula

Some implications that the newspaper highlights are:

  • New measures of player and team performances
  • Data manipulation as a form of doping
  • High-frequency betting
  • Communication (sensors, images) hacking
  • Enhanced data services (TV and games)
  • New language to describe players and their roles
  • Tactics, micro-strategies and their readability
  • A resurgence of the local, artisanal, working-class lager

When parents purchase the DNA kit that their kid’s route to athletic excellence

The Molecular Football™ algorithm automatically produces snapshots of systems and micro-tactics such as: The Born Again Christmas Tree, The Spinal Trap, Perpetual Motion, or Zugzwang

In this project we mixed foresight techniques such as horizon scanning and scenario development to capture weak signals and posit disruptions in technology and society with a design approach to create fictional narratives of the future that focus on the implications behind the signals. We applied unusual approaches to interweaving everything from raw videogame datasets to rich description of artifacts and advertising from a hypothetical future to forecasts about politics, genomics, law, finance, technology, ethics, and climate change informed our design of both narrative and visuals contained within the quotidian vessel of the newspaper frame.

Winning Fomula

The project will be exhibited at the National Football Museum in Manchester until April 3, 2014 as part of the Future Everything festival. Last Friday, it was inserted in 130,000 copies of the Manchester Evening News. It will be part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB in Barcelona from May 9 to October 26, 2014, and at Fundación Telefónica in Madrid in 2015.

Winning Formula is a Near Future Laboratory project commissioned and produced by FutureEverything, National Football Museum, Centre for Contemporary Culture Barcelona – CCCB, and Fundación Telefónica, supported by ECAS, a European Commission Culture Fund project and MEDIAPRO.

It is international, transdisciplinary effort that involved futurists, technologists, designers, and writers stretching from Europe, South America to the US, and is an example of a number of small practices and studios working in close collaboration. The project was conceived and directed by Fabien Girardin of Near Future Laboratory, and developed in tight collaboration with futurists Scott Smith of Changeist and Philippe Gargov of Seeklup. It was designed with Bestiario and includes the writing of Natalie Kane, Margot Baldassi, Christophe Kuchly and Valéry Mba Aboghe, and the translations of Eva Fernández García, Raphael Cosmidis with the help of Fanny Negre.


A Delightful Design Fiction Evening in San Francisco

Last October we gathered for a Laboratory day retreat and decided — so long as we’re all together — why don’t we make a thing of it. So, we arranged to do an evening’s gathering with our friends at IDEO. Scott Paterson from IDEO facilitated our way into IDEO’s splendid waterfront facility. We brought beer, IDEO brought beer, we had lots of beer and, most importantly, we shared with our audience some perspectives on Design Fiction. Our friend Ed Finn from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination helped us set the metaphorical table. Sharing thoughts were Julian Bleecker, James Bridle, Nick Foster and Cliff Kuang from Wired facilitated the conversation.

It was “delightful”, as the kids are fond of saying nowadays. But, more delightful than the most delightful UX. Properly delightful in the way that a gathering of humans in a room can be delightful. A gathering to think, debate, discuss and laugh. Like a salon. We will be hosting more of these around the globe, as our Bureau of Delightful Design Fiction Evening Events spins-up and makes it Napoleonic plans.

D&F: A Design & Fiction Evening

Design & Fiction

We are the Near Future Laboratory. Welcome to us.

On Thursday October 24th we would like to meet up with you to talk about design. And fiction. And the ways of approaching the challenge of all challenges, whatever it may be. We’ll talk about expressing the opportunities those challenges raise as distinctly new tangible forms. As well as the essential value of mundane design.

We’ll talk about clarifying the present. We’ll talk about designing the future. And doing both of these things with design. And fiction.

Come and enjoy. We’ll be us, and we’ll also be James Bridle, a friend of ours.
There will be two and a half free regional beers for everyone.
Space is limited because we’re in a room. Sign up on Eventbrite, or you may become deflated.


Green Pages

Nick and I came back again to the Emerge 2013 event at Arizona State University to workshop an issue of “Green Pages”, the Laboratory’s ‘Quarterly Design & Technology Fiction Almanac.’

For those of you who haven’t subscribed, or don’t know about it, Green Pages is Design Fiction operationalized. Green Pages makes Design Fiction into something the entertainment industry can use directly.

In Part 1 of each issue we curate a careful selection of imminent and emerging technologies, provide a brief on each. In Part 2 we select a number of these and provide authored narrative and cinematic elements that are one-page diegetic prototypes, elements of fictions, Macguffins, props, prototypes, conceits, etc.

An example of Part 2 would be a one page plot synopsis, or a bit of production design for a prop informed by one of the technologies introduced in the issue.

The stories in Part 2 for this issue are especially good. They do not make the technical element central, but rather use it as stimulus for a proper narrative. We spent a lot of time unearthing good, dramatic, character-driven stuff that wasn’t ham-fisted techno-thriller fodder. I’m excited by these stories — they’re quite compelling, evocative moments of larger dramas that could easily see their way to being produced in some form — film, pilot, novel, etc.

Since this is the first time we’ve mentioned Green Pages here on the blog, I should say that it is a trade publication — it’s not an art project, or flight of design fancy. It’s an edited journal for a specific trade audience — producers, agents, writers, production designers, directors, etc. It’s not a PDF — we print it, authenticate each copy of each issue, and mail them out like normal, human print publications.

There has been interest beyond Hollywood for a publication like this. That’s partially because of the content but also some interest in the approach we take to translating raw technology ideas into compelling narratives — scenarios, they’re called in other domains.

For the workshop here at Emerge 2013, we thought the general approach to creating these Design Fictions and diegetic prototypes would be a worthwhile learning experience for folks at a large research university like ASU. For example, engineers and scientists who perhaps could learn how to translate technical stuff into compelling stories that help them round out the purely technical idea (wireless power distribution, for example) with issues and implications in a broader sense. Working in a room with engineers, policy gurus, creative writers all at once — everyone with their game-face on — was truly exciting and extremely productive. We had some excellent, exciting starters .We managed to get a solid bit of work on them the first day. Then on the second day we had some super exciting creative work — a screenplay excerpt, page one of a novel, a film synopsis, character casting notes and production design for a key prop of eco-thriller.

We’ll be working over the next weeks to clean up the material — in one and a half days it’s difficult to really complete a full issue, printing and binding and all that. But we were able to get the core done and hand out a few to the Emerge participants.

Good stuff.

Arizona, February 2013

From the desk of The Editors

Welcome to Issue 7 of Green Pages.

This is a milestone issue for a number of reasons.

Firstly, our subscriptions have more than doubled since we first launched — and that happened entirely by word of mouth. This kind of growth is unprecedented in the trade journal world.

We’ve also received an unprecedented number of recommendations from you, our subscribers, recommending colleagues for a complimentary issue. Thank you for the suggestions. We are working hard to follow through and vet your nominations.

We’re also excited because this issue was done in collaboration with the Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This is the first time we’ve worked directly with a major research university. We hope this will set a new precedent for the way we create and curate our content.

Inside this issue you’ll find a diverse collection of our front pages containing concepts that range from biotech to counter-surveillance to prosthetic enhancements. There’s Swarm Robotics, Encoded Ballistics, Image-based Diagnostics, Foliage Penetrating Radar, Lab Grown Bone, Afterlife Cells, Surveillance Drone Mitigation, Depression Detection Systems, Lighter Than Air Vehicles, Billion Pixel Camera, Digitigrade Prostheses, Tracheal Scrubbers, Data Magnets, Predictive Vaccines, Nanoturbine Surfaces, Organ Printing, ‘Miracle Salt’, Svalbard Gene & Seed Bank, Vortex Ring Gun, and more. There are some very exciting, provocative research projects that are easily extended into the realm of story telling — and not all as purely techno-thrillers. We’ve developed several of these into one pages conceits and précis both cinematic and traditional narrative-based. We have some evocative production design as well.

Overall, we’re quite happy with this issue. We hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Bleecker and Mr. Foster (Eds.)

Curious Rituals

Curious Rituals is a project about gestures, postures and rituals people adopt when using digital technologies. It’s both a book documenting gestures we observed, and a design fiction film that speculates about their evolution

Location: Los Angeles, USA
Years: Summer 2012
Leader: Nicolas Nova
Method: Ethnography and prototyping

Curious Rituals was a research project conducted at Art Center College of Design (Pasadena) in July-August 2012 by Nicolas Nova (The Near Future Laboratory / HEAD-Genève), Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu from the media design program.

The project was about gestures, postures and digital rituals that typically emerged with the use of digital technologies (computers, mobile phones, sensors, robots, etc.): gestures such as recalibrating your smartphone doing an horizontal 8 sign with your hand, the swiping of wallet with RFID cards in public transports, etc. These practices can be seen as the results of a co-construction between technical/physical constraints, contextual variables, designers intents and people’s understanding. We can see them as an intriguing focus of interest to envision the future of material culture.

The aim of the project was to envision the future of gestures and rituals based on:

  1. A documentation of current digital gestures in a book format
  2. The making of a design fiction film that speculate about their evolution

“Curious Rituals” was produced as part of a research residency in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.