Big Sellers From the Future?
Why one think tank is giving away prescient product ideas.
By Christopher Null

(Business 2.0) – TRENDSPOTTING IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. SO MUCH so that the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank, produces an annual 96-page 10-year forecast--an exhaustive compendium of societal and technological trends, widely regarded as the bellwether of long-range planning. Just one problem: "Clients weren't reading the reports," admits Jason Tester, the IFTF's research and design manager.

So, in summer 2003, Tester tried a different tack that became known as "artifacts from the future": mocked-up products claiming to be from, say, 2009. You might go to an IFTF presentation and see baskets of finessed fruit that promise cognitive enhancement. Or you might wake up in the hotel where the IFTF seminar was being held to find your newspaper dated 10 years hence.

Artifacts were intended to start conversations. They worked. Mark Schar, senior vice president of financial software company Intuit, an IFTF client, says, "When you present forecasts to a group of executives, you're standing there and waving your arms a lot. When you put an artifact in front of them, they go, 'Oh, I get it.'"

IFTF clients now pay the nonprofit as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for research that includes custom artifacts. For Procter & Gamble, a client for 20 years, artifacts have inspired real products. (P&G won't say which ones.)

Could what worked for P&G work for you? Is the IFTF offering prescient market research? We trawled Tester's archive of artifacts to find out. In one case (the RFID blocker, page 34), a similar technology has been released since Tester did his mock-up. Here are other ideas the nonprofit institute has come up with--and how likely each is to become serious business too.

Pharma Fruit

THE IDEA: We already fortify foods with vitamins and minerals. Why not add smart drugs and anxiety medication?

THE TREND: Pharmaceuticals will be taken on an as-needed basis. Users wary of pills might be less afraid of apples.

TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE? Almost. Already there are functional foods such as Dannon's Activia yogurt, with trademarked bacteria said to promote digestive health.

RFID Locators and Blockers

THE IDEA: A lamp that can be made to spotlight anything with an RFID tag (above), and a disruptor tag that shuts down signals from RFID chips within 3 feet (right).

THE TREND: Consumers are already wary of the new RFID-tagged driver's licenses and credit cards--but they'll be keener on using the technology to find stuff at home.

TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE? Yes. A company called RSA Security has invented an RFID blocker, though it isn't yet being marketed. But an online business, DifrWear, has started selling an RFID-blocking wallet.

Glacier Water

THE IDEA: A new source for bottled H2O.

THE TREND: The world is getting thirsty for fresh drinking water as rivers run dry. At the same time, global warming is melting the ice caps. Why not turn that bug into a feature?

TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE? Yes. Alaska Glacier Refreshments is already marketing water that was stored in the Eklutna Glacier for 23,000 years--but it doesn't come direct.

Reputation Accounts

THE IDEA: A monthly statement keeps track of positive online contributions: writing for wikis, posting podcasts, monitoring community webcams.

THE TREND: Web 2.0 sites and services live or die on user content, but they can't afford financial incentives.

TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE? Yes, such as Slashdot.org's "karma points." But there's no single Web-wide system.

Social Network Movie Tickets

THE IDEA: The ticket machine knows your buddy list, tells you how close by buddies are, and offers discounts if they see the movie too.

THE TREND: More of us will have "always on" connections and GPS devices that always know where we are.

TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE? In theory. Wi-Fi needs to be more widespread, however, and social networks need to integrate GPS.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.