Billed as a tour of the secret studios and experimental spaces of East London, it seemed incongruous that A Trip to The Future began at The Shepherdess, a greasy spoon just off Old Street. I ordered very stewed tea from the puzzled waiter, as our host Ben Hammersley zipped around tables chatting to people eating proper old-fashioned toast. As Editor at Large of Wired UK, and the UK Prime Minister's Ambassador to TechCity, our journey forward was in the best possible hands.
We began at Silicon Roundabout (named in affectionate parody of California's Silicon Valley), as Ben drew a near-enough 360-degree architectural landscape, mapping buildings as histories. From Victorian mansion blocks to The Shard, an idea of the present as the past's future; layers of meaning and stories to form Now, rather than a Blade Runner picture of slickness. The real future is messy, cobbled together, confusing. But it also talks to us from URLs everywhere on billboards to lampposts, the Smart City dictating a new way of interaction, town planning upgraded.
Our first stop was Inition, a 3D studio producing all manner of interactive technologies. The idea of 3D printing isn't new, but the name 'print' seemed loose and naive for such readymades popped out of the 'printer' with several integral moving parts -- a Bosch 'drill', a scrap of chain mail -- each print costing from £200 and taking hours to emerge. These drawings in plastic and plaster require some material development to become usable, but we had no trouble conceiving of printed food or human organs. Exciting as these things were, I felt fear for people, as machines become autonomous.
As we toured the studio, concepts that initially rendered us incredulous quickly became fathomable. We watched 3D films, saw how luxury goods are sold via shop-window participation, allowing passers-by to 'try on' watches and jewellery. This 'Augmented Reality' merges everyday and computer-simulated experience. It's a lot more exciting than mere virtual reality, because this one has real life plus extras. This evoked Ben's ideas on layering again, and how it included and engaged humans, not just wrote them off. I watched delight in peoples' faces as they hovered iPads over a patterned worktop that was programmed to show an augmented city scene, so that it appeared to be ‘living and breathing’ atop a plinth in our real world.
In stark contrast, Alex Deschamps-Sonsino at the Really Interesting Group talked to us in glorious sunshine, no Powerpoint, no props, barring a small snowman tree decoration (a conceptual collaboration with Inition, 'printed' in size-relation to the receiver’s Twitter followers - the more followers, the bigger the head). She shared stories of entrepreneurial successes and budding business ideas, proving the future is human: simply projects discussed over tea and cake. Lots of tea. The brightest minds converge at a certain time of the week at The Shepherdess apparently, and at The Reliance at other non-certain times.
As we wandered the streets of Internet start-ups past, I lost my bearings and East lost its coat of overt hipster cool, becoming both clandestine and playful. We stopped for lunch at creative ad agency Mother, a high-power outfit directing our futures. I think we all rather enjoyed the projector malfunction as we sat on the steps of their in-house cinema, provoking interesting discussion instead of Powerpoint, with digital trend writer Daniel Nye Griffiths.
The last stop came full circle, as though our day of future forecasting had neatly resolved itself into the present. London Hackspace is one of a growing number of global, community-run projects, allowing members access to tools and shared knowledge. Our tour of the ramshackle space (with its hacked Oyster Card entry system) saw an electronics workshop, a woodwork class and people deep in computer screen concentration.
Here was the future in action from the ground up, in the form of comprehensible examples of augmented reality and printed objects. A place buzzing with the real and the conceptual, it showed that however fast the future comes at us, it's still in our hands.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life. If you'd like to take the next 'Trip To The Future' with Ben Hammersley then join us on Saturday 22 September 2012. For more details and to book, click here.
Photography by Stephanie Wolff. Follow her blog at http://londoninsight.wordpress.com/