Messy is Neat

Posted in technology, work by johnsnavely on November 18, 2011

I published a few images from the Productivity Vision Video that I mentioned in my last post into my portfolio.

The videos have a complex set of criteria. On the one hand, they are used often by marketing folks to give a sense to customers of what we think the future might hold. On the other, we’re trying to inspire product groups within the company to take a fresh look at things. For the interfaces, we try and have a level a detail that is unusually well thought out for a video, but more like a sketch to those who work in interface design. Since we are not a product group, we have a delicate dance to do; we’re not showing the next version of the product and we can’t give away company secrets, but we still need to build something that’s actually relevant. It’s a lot to pack into 5-6 minutes.

I thought I’d give a little behind-the-scenes the thinking process that goes into a few seconds of the movie…

In the home scene, Shannon (the little girl) exits from her math homework and goes to her bake sale scrap book . The sequence takes about 5 seconds (4:50-4:55min on youtube). We thought of Shannon’s device as her digital notebook, a notebook that she took everywhere. There’s a lot of precedence for an “os” that uses the metaphor of books. Most notably Microsoft’s Courier device (in fact we studied some of the early design concepts for the device), but also the Amazon book store, and Apple’s book shelf and One Note for Office.

Most of these interfaces try to take the activity of reading and collecting books and organize it. Bookshelves can be beautiful and are great for displaying books, but when we’re actually working with open books, things look a little different. They might look like this:

Or this:

What would an interface look like that let me “spread out” all my books? What would the books be? How would I navigate it?

For all of Shannon’s digital content, we started to place everything we might traditionally think of as inside “apps” or “windows” as part of books instead. Social networking could be done in her yearbook, while instant messaging and SMS looks like a comic book (see the lower left). Search results are gathered into a book that she could save or dynamically filter. At the beginning of this scene, Shannon learns math from an bear-in-a-book who knows when she should take a break and work on a different project.

To contain all these books we thought a pan and zoom canvas would be ideal for the infinite space, much like the interface Blaise talks about in his TED talk on Deep Zoom & Photosynth. She could organize things spatially and build her own relationships between books– a story about Amelia Earhart sits next to a diagram of how a beetle flies, sits next to a page on how to fold an origami bird. (see the lower right).

As books are layered on and there’s quite a bit of them, however, you might forget where you’ve placed something. Touch and hold brings up a contextual menu. And touch and hold and speech can issue a command, like “Find my bake sale stuff” to search for that book.

There’s more little software secrets hidden in this scene and throughout the video. I wish we had more time to do a video on one of them at a time… I’d love to explore the interaction model we built for the phones, for example.


Books Every Futurist Must Read

Posted in books, culture, hobbies, technology by johnsnavely on November 2, 2011

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I read plenty of novels for pleasure, but I’m also constantly trying to find good ideas to steal from books. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with co-workers about which books we thought every futurist needed to read. That’s a pretty tall order, what came to mind were all the books that I’ve recently stolen ideas from. They’re not great literature necessarily, in fact some are rather pulpy (which I love), but all of them have some great concepts in them. Here’s a short list in no particular order.

via Alyssa B.

Old Man’s War
Scalzi is a fun and funny writer. I just finished Agent to the Stars one of his earlier novels. In this novel he imagines a future where the elderly leave earth and are given new bodies and amazing technology to fight an interstellar war. James Cameron must have read this before making Avatar. Some ideas I want to build: Brain Pal and Emotional Instant Messaging

Kiln People
Brin’s novel is a hard boiled detective story. It’s set in a world where people can make copies of themselves, with limited expiration dates and then inload the memories of those copies. The whole concept of parallel lives in this novel basically changed how I understood social networking. Now, when anyone says they want to add “Social” (ugz) to a project I wonder how I can make it more like this novel.

Diamond Age
This book was recommended by a friend. For some reason we were talking about how little cultural groups form and joking about a “Helvetica Tribe”. The Illlustrated Primer, a “magic” book, is artfully done. I keep returning to it as an example.

Gibson’s book has been at the top of many of my lists for a while. Almost everything he’s written about in the novel has come true in some form or other.

Ghost in the Shell (1,2, and 1.5)
These graphic novels are works of art. They’re like a Donna Hathaway’s gorgeous nightmare. Machines and people are melded seamlessly and you can never tell the difference between a robot and a human.

Mary Poppins (the movie is pretty good too)
A shout out to the Berg folks. I read all of these when I was very young. (As well as the whole Doctor Doolittle series.) In today’s world, you expect the newest gadget to do something amazing, these books which use magic bluntly applied to the everyday, without the slickness of technology. I’ve been coveting Mary Poppin’s mirror and her endless carpetbag.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
In Cory Doctorow’s book, nobody dies and a band of people lives and works in an abandoned DisneyLand. Also, there is no money, only reputation points called “Whuffie”– it’s an idea sort of stolen from eBay but it’s evolved into something better here. I’m trying to unify “Whuffie” and “BitCoin” in my brain.

This is one of Nicholson Baker’s early softcore novels. Many of his books dilate time in one way or another, but in this one it’s quite literal: the main character can stop time. The story is both sexually explicit and remarkably boring. Often when I’m thinking about new amazing technology, I’ll try and ask myself how the main character in this story would use it.

Currently, I’m reading “Super Sad True Love Story” which was recommended to me as a book that every futurist must read. Any other suggestions?


Posted in personal, technology by johnsnavely on July 19, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve updated and there’s a lot going on. I’ve given a couple talks and finished a few big projects (I’ll post on those separately.) But the biggest news is that I’m going to be a dad. Fatherdom is coming this winter.

So I’ve instantiated a new thread in my brain that’s been working on what I’m going to give my son for his first birthday. He’ll have physical toys, to be sure, but I’m talking about a digital bounty (or my digital detritus).

Do I friend him on delicious and show him my network of friends? Or buy him a kindle filled with all my favorite books? Or make a youtube account filled with some Donaghy advice? Maybe I should just buy him a 3d printer and tell him to make his own iPad if he wants one…

I remember when I was a kid my mom brought home an early x86 computer which booted from a floppy. My brother and I broke it in an hour. Later, I started playing early Sierra games– the ones where you had to type commands in: “Feed chickens”. I had a friend named Peter Shin, who was a math whiz and we’d play Kings Quest for hours at his house. Eventually, we decided to make our own game and that’s when I started to learn how to program.

I’ve probably been thinking about Mac Tonnies too long. It’s too early too ponder mortality when I don’t even have a legacy. More than likely, my kid is going to be giving me some digital lessons. I’m going to school him pretty hard in UT, though.

Les Enfants Terribles

Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on May 30, 2011

A few weeks ago, K and I had dinner with a new couple we hadn’t met before. At one point during the dinner, as I was explaining what I do– that I work at Microsoft to paint a vision of the future of technology. I was asked bluntly if my work was out of step with the world and what the world needed was less technology instead or (gasp) no technology at all.

This has happened before. I’ve spoken a few times at K’s undergraduate philosophy classes and there’s been a reaction each time. “Why can’t we just go into the woods and turn it off?” “There’s too much technology– I wish we could go back in time.” This angst is coming from an age group which, if the numbers are to be believed, is using technology more often than any other. (They’re probably also an age group which is ‘angsty’ more often than any other too, but that’s a new post.)

In fact, these days not a month goes by when I meet someone, explain to them what I do, and have them frown unpleasantly as I said I was a Scientologist, rather than a futurist.

People who say technology should go away because there are some bad experiences out there sound a lot like Hitchens or Dawkins on religion. Religion did something bad, so religion should just go away. Even to an atheist like me this sounds more ridiculous than provocative.

So what do to with this hypocrisy? (And yes, there’s quite a bit about our experiences with technology and information which could be improved. That’s a problem too.) Are these feelings, as a coworker would suggest, the normal, inevitable Luddite backlash you have in any culture at any time in history? (“There’s too much iron, stone tools are more handcrafted.”)

There’s a lot to unpack in the backlash. And I’ll probably need to write more.

But there’s something rumbling around in my brain after a few conversations with August and Edith… we all agreed that we hated the word “content consumption” and I’m trying to figure out why.

via DIS Mag

I found myself thinking of these videos. The idea that given the choice, we prefer to identify with children more than adults. There’s a stunted maturity which, when contrasted with adult concerns (the sexuality in Hafaas videos, for example) is either provocative or wrong…. it’s hard to tell which.

In the back of my mind, I think of technology as aspiring to identify us as children, providing the “simple” interface into the world. In reality, people’s lives are complex– filled with “adult” situations and desires. Relationships between coworkers family and friends may leave one feeling more like the parent than the child. Serving and served. Interactive versus interpassive.

via DannSpann

The concentration of technology on childhood represents a focus on it’s role in our private lives, not in our ability to construct public lives. Sherry Turkle’s call to “put technology in its place” is a little misguided. She suggests that technology works well in our private lives (when I’m alone) but hinders interpersonal relationships. But instead of shrinking from this challenge, technology could be used as a tool to augment social interactions.

As much as I’d like technology for adults, an audience which I think is a bit underserved. I can see that we might build software worlds where you alternatively take turns being the caregiver and the care-receiver. Production and consumption could be given equal weight and each a turn.

Artificial Diane Arbus

Posted in culture, technology by johnsnavely on December 1, 2010

This article (via:kottke) about two conjoined twins, who share a portion of their brain was fascinating.

Adding to the conundrum, of course, are their linked brains, and the mysterious hints of what passes between them. The family regularly sees evidence of it. The way their heads are joined, they have markedly different fields of view. One child will look at a toy or a cup. The other can reach across and grab it, even though her own eyes couldn’t possibly see its location. “They share thoughts, too,” says Louise. “Nobody will be saying anything,” adds Simms, “and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.” While their verbal development is delayed, it continues to get better. Their sentences are two or three words at most so far, and their enunciation is at first difficult to understand. Both the family, and researchers, anxiously await the children’s explanation for what they are experiencing.

Beyond the extraordinary physiological and psychological implications, the article made me wonder if their experience is what it might be like to share our consciousness with an AI of some sort… You would “know” things, without knowing how you knew them.

The Valley of the Lamb

Posted in art, personal, technology by johnsnavely on October 31, 2010

As most of you know, I am obsessed with the Uncanny Valley. I want to live there.

Actroid F is a modified version of the Geminoid F female robot that we discussed earlier. A lot of effort has gone into making these robots simpler, cheaper, and easier to power. The air compressor and valves that control Actroid F’s motion can run off of household electricity. Actroid F is also 30 kg lighter than other full scale robots in the Actroid/Geminoid series. The webcam setup for telepresence is meant to be as simple as possible while still providing the right experience for the user. To talk through Actroid F you need three cameras: one aimed at the speaker to pick up facial expressions and movements, another camera showing the Actroid’s face so the user can see how the robot is conveying her emotions, and a final camera that shows a panoramic view of the robot interacting with people in the room. A little more complex than your standard Skype portal, but that’s to be expected when you are speaking through a robotic avatar. Pay attention in the videos below to see how Actroid F can clearly pick out face and head movements, and adjusts its eyes to follow sound. This is a very life-like robot…which, again, is probably why it can be so eerie to watch.



Posted in projects, technology by johnsnavely on September 12, 2010

Google has a new website out called Google Scribe. I’m using it to write this entire post. Basically, it’s an autocomplete field for general writing, not just the search box. The algorithm isn’t published, so I’m not sure how it exactly works. I think it samples from the “great” writing found on the web, but no idea if it turns you into a more generic writer or a better one. But there’s a lot of different uses for this thing, and google has made it easy to place it into any website with a text field.

Here’s a couple experiments that other people have done with the writer. You can start it out with just a phrase and then just let it go. It doesn’t support link suggestions, which might make the tool go from being a clever toy to the most awesome thing I could use to write. When I’m writing, I need an autocomplete that goes beyond words– it needs to include documents, links, contacts and content (preferably scraped from my copious online output). I’m building all these loose associations in my brain by collecting things in delicious, in blogs, other social networking websites…but tying them together is something that I do when I sit down and write. A tool that could effectively sit in my idea-flow and help finish my thoughts would be a piece of software that I would pay for.

Yesterday on NPR they announced this weeks new 3-minute story contest. This weeks contest gives you the first and last sentences and lets NPR listeners send in the remaining 600 words. I’m going to have google scribe write the in-between and see what comes out. (Shhh, don’t tell them that I’m doing this.) I hope it’s funny enough to win something. Maybe Michael Cunningham deserves to be Sokal-ed? I’ll publish the story here when I finish it.

Fog of More

Posted in architecture, technology by johnsnavely on August 24, 2010

Keiichi Matsuda, a student at Bartlett School of Architecture, has produced a set of slick visuals.

The in-air displays and gestures reminded me of this video, which is an interesting study of what your hands are doing when you read a book, minus the book:

This stuff seems a little far-fetched, but with a small, portable Kinect and some display glasses or contact lenses, it’s not that far off.

Heck, Pranav Minstry is doing it right now with a webcam and a pico-projector:

The strange part about these scenarios is the disappearance of physical objects, which I question. What would we covet and conspicuously consume? User Interface Designs? That doesn’t quite make sense.

Nicholas Cage

Posted in technology by johnsnavely on July 27, 2010

From BBC News:

A team of 30 Spanish doctors say they have successfully performed the world’s first full face transplant.

A man injured in a shooting accident received the entire facial skin and muscles – including cheekbones, nose, lips and teeth – of a donor.

Please combine this with the previous post and imagine your new personal robotic face, configurable in real time.

I’ve been reading “The Shadow of the Torturer” by Gene Wolfe, lent to me by a co-worker. It’s an usual book set in the “future middle ages”. There’s a passage where the main character (Severian) learns the origins of one of his friends (Jonas). Early in the novel it’s revealed that Jonas has a steel, prosthetic, hand and one normal hand. Later, the Severian realizes that it’s not just Jonas’ hand that is made of steel but other parts of his body as well. Jonas explains that he was in a terrible accident where he lost much of his body. Jonas’ friends had tried to repair him, but they ran out of metal; they had to use biological parts to finish the job.

Nobody Lost, Nobody Found

Posted in technology by johnsnavely on April 29, 2010

I had a chance to take home an iPad from work yesterday. I had spent some time with the device in the store a few weeks before and held off on writing a review. My reluctance had less to do with the iPad, than with my general feelings as a designer working in technology towards Apple’s cultural dominance in my field of choice.

I’ll use the iphone as an example of  The-Inner-Conflict, which goes something like this:

1.) These days, the iphone is basically the social equivalent of a Jersey Shore tan / tramp stamp, they have same sort of allure that most of pop-culture does to designers.

2.) The iphone is the best phone available out there. Period. And it pretty much brought the mobile revolution to America, by building a phone that made everything easier on a phone but phone calls.

So maybe that gives you an idea of what kind of person I am, and thus, which grains of salt you’d like to keep on the table.