To Recap

We launched Android Wear. I’m leaving Google and moving from San Francisco to Dublin where I’ll be joining Intercom as Director of Design.


We launched Android Wear.

There’s an immediacy, a sense of here-and-nowness, to being a technology designer that excites me. We get to sit at the edge of what’s about to come, trying to will the near future into being, to prod and push at the adjacent possible until something new pops out. Maybe the result wasn’t quite what you were expecting at first, but another few prods and it turns into something new and amazing. Technology is the greatest multiplier of culture that’s ever existed, and even if you just do something small, well, that’s still pretty decent when refracted through a massive magnifying lens. Connectedness continues to seep into the lives of regular people at an unbelievable rate, in what must be one of the most signification cultural shifts of our times.

When I remember to look up, I notice that these changes are happening incredibly fast. If you’ve been using computers for even a few years you’ve probably experienced technological whiplash a couple of times. Maybe a friend shows you a simple new thing they got, like a USB thumb drive or something, and you marvel at how capacious and cheap it has suddenly become. Maybe you bought one yourself just last year, but it was half the size and twice the price. How can that even be? It’s like compound interest, multiplying annually, snowballing. You needed a forklift to move 5MB drive in 1956, now ten thousand times more storage could easily fit into… well, into a watch.

Thus has it always been. This trend turns out to have been so consistently reliable that it’s basically been a codified law of the computing world for several decades. (How long it’s likely to continue, who knows.) But the nice thing about this trend is that it allows you to fairly accurately look into the future: computers will get smaller and cheaper at a fairly decent and steady clip. Just extrapolate the slanted line of Moore’s Law and you get a decent prediction of the future, no charge. Then, you just imagine what that future might be like.

So, while working for Google in Zurich in 2011 along with a couple of friends – the inimitable Morten Just and the irrepressible JP Gil – I started a 20% project to design a computer watch. It seemed an improbable idea just four years ago, but that slanted line don’t lie: before long someone was going to shrink an Android-capable device down to the size of a matchbook, and then keep on going.

It began as a fun design fiction topic to debate over beers: what would the UI for such a tiny computer look like? How would you interact with it? What would it be good at?

Well, for a start you probably wouldn’t want all of the bother of installing and launching apps. (Who wants an app grid? Yeuck.) You probably wouldn’t even need apps at all, at least the way we typically think of them. You’d might just want a display that you could glance at quickly, and it would somehow magically show you only the most pertinent information for you at just that moment. Of course, the design challenge is to take all the knotty complexity involved in actually making it work, and just make it feel simple.

Fast forward to this summer, and Android Wear launched at Google I/O. I talked about some ideas behind the design as part of the launch.

A lot happened during that fast forward: a lot of collaboration, merging, splitting, canceling, rebooting, and sprinting. And also some guessing, despairing, disagreeing, and failing. We collaborated with countless Google colleagues, many of whom donated their own 20% time. We worked with hardware and software engineers in Motorola, and worked inside Googlex for a while. I moved to the US, and we teamed up with a group inside Android who were thinking along the same lines.

Apple, of course, have since provided a preview of their take. I look forward to playing with one. Here’s what I’ll say: it was immensely interesting to get a look at how some of the best designers in the world approached many of the design problems that I wrestled with over the last couple of years. I mean really, how often do you get an opportunity like that? I feel like I watched their announcement with eyes already attuned to the hazards of the environment: oh, look how they tackled the list selection problem; the finger occlusion problem; the spatial model.

If the ebb and flow of competing software platforms for the last 30 years has taught us anything, it’s that these different approaches will probably lap against each other’s shores, gradually commingling and mixing to form something standard and canonical – and ultimately better – while each still retaining their own individual flavour. I’m glad to have had the chance to add some ingredients into the early mix.


I’m leaving Google

Eight years! I can only say that Google was a big part of my life, and an experience for which I’m very grateful. Over the course of those years (and living in three countries) I met some of the nicest, sharpest, most interesting people I ever have. There are a couple of projects that I fully expect to have the same level of global impact as Web Search and Android have already had (autonomous vehicles is one of them). It’s insane that all of that can come from one company. Google’s ambition and audacity continues to astound.

Still, the world is disappointingly real. There’s a lot of sound and fury around Google Inc., mosto fo which is nonsense, but I do believe it’s true that corporate entities can develop their own autonomous momentum. A lot of people are fairly skeptical of the machinations of ultra-mega-globo-corps, but I also believe that Google is a grand experiment in building something different, better, and more intentional. I hope that it can continue to hold onto it’s original character for a long time to come.


and moving from San Francisco

People ask me if I like living here, and I usually prevaricate and say that I do and I don’t.

I love the light here: I’ll probably miss that the most. And the wide open sky. The unfettered positivity. The countryside just across the bridge. The food. The local history. The niche events. The sense of living in a beta version of the future.

But. Suffice to say that I agree with most of the points in Alex Payne’s break up letter with the city. The inequality is devastating to witness and hard to countenance. In an odd way, I found San Francisco to be strangely conservative: almost hostile in it’s devotion to preserving a precious sense of itself, strangely resistant to the very change that seems to be it’s primary character trait, determined to doggedly play out a role that it has defined for itself. I know these seem like contradictions; so yes, this city is large, it contains multitudes. Honestly, I think a lot of people come here and feel alienated by the overt SF-ness of SF. That popular person you know who is actually riddled with self-doubt? That’s San Francisco. Trying really hard to pull off that effortless look? That’s San Francisco. Thirty-eight going on eighteen? San Francisco. A really nice city that’s understandably having a bit of a midlife crisis.


to Dublin

“To be Irish is to think about leaving,” someone said. To leave, I would add, is to think about going back.

Dublin, though. You wouldn’t want to be casting too many stones, like. Fair enough.

But. There’s an elemental attraction to go back that I never really shook off. It was always in the back of my mind. Certainly my Irishness is intrinsically connected to that feeling. But having traipsed around a few places, I do know that people spend a lot of time searching for what you get in Ireland for free.

Recaps are supposed to be short, so I won’t even start on about the most significant thing that’s happened to me of late. But it’ll be nice to bring him home too.


where I’ll be joining Intercom as Director of Design.

When the chance to join Intercom came up, I almost had no choice. I’d crossed paths with Eoghan, Des, Paul, and some other folks at various stages in the past, and was curious why so many really good people all seemed to be gathering in one place. Very suspicious indeed. When I figured out that they happen to be building what I think might become an important piece of infrastructure for the future of the internet, I was pretty much sold.

As the dust kicked up but the introduction of mobile computing is settles, we can survey the landscape and the vast changes wrought. First, the world is pouring online at a scale that PCs could never have facilitated, and commerce is following. Next, the fundamental ways we interact with computers and each other has changed, and new patterns and standards have emerged. Messaging is mobile’s killer app and may be the most natural unit of interaction on mobile (the card and the chronological stream of posts might also be contenders).

Yet almost anyone who has tried to actually communicate with a business online at even a basic level knows the pain involved. Kafka would weep. There’s no doubt that this is fertile ground for improvement. It’s almost as if the problem and solution are just lying there, waiting for someone to figure out how to fit them togther just right. And Intercom has some great ideas for how to do it.

It’s actually a knotty design problem that can only be solved by making things much simpler for everyone involved. I like problems like that. Plus ça change!

— 09 Oct 2014

Lens of the Future

From Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, published in March 2011:

Physics of the Future

From the Google Blog, posted January 2014 by one Babak Parviz:

We’re now testing a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

The future rolls around fast these days. Time to start the clock on this prediction from futurist (and now also Google employee) Ray Kurzweil in his review of Spike Jonze’s Her:

I would place some of the elements in Jonze’s depiction at around 2020, give or take a couple of years, such as the diffident and insulting videogame character he interacts with, and the pin-sized cameras that one can place like a freckle on one’s face. Other elements seem more like 2014, such as the flat-panel displays, notebooks and mobile devices… Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable.

— 13 Feb 2014

Finn

Finn

Look what’s happened. Now we are three: a real family. He arrived home a few days ago, and we have all been getting to know each other and ourselves.

He weighed and measured as much as most babies do, which is astonishingly little when you’re actually holding them. I am in awe of him. His mother too. I can’t begin to tell you.

The whole thing feels like some sort of big bang moment, a sudden simultaneous expansion and contraction of the universe. Silence, followed by everything (and by crying). Soon he will lengthen and toughen, grow larger and deeper. But this is his starting point, his tiny squishy amazing first moments. The start of something new, and of all things new. He is wonderful. Welcome to our world, little Finn!

There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy.
– Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle

— 06 Feb 2014

Yearnote

It takes a special type of person to be surprised by the exact same thing year after year. Yet here I am looking back, once again caught off guard by how the blade of experience never seems to get dull. Contrary to what I had once anticipated about getting older, change is the only constant.

Some of the paths I’ll remember tracing this time around:

  • Paula and I moved from Zurich to San Francisco. We found an old Victorian in a nice neighbourhood, and have been diligently exploring the many wonders of the Bay Area.
  • We’re here mainly because I had the opportunity to work on something interesting. More on that in due course. I’m doing something on the Android Design team and enjoying it mightily.
  • Road trips! We drove from Essaouira, Morocco over the Atlas Mountains and down into the Toubkal Valley. We zoomed around the incredible island of Kaua’i in a jeep. We traced the coast from Seattle to SF in a rental car. With more time available I’d have preferred a more deliberate means, but all things considered just getting in a car and stopping when you see something interesting is a fairly good strategy for travel. I also found out that California is a country unto itself, visiting Los Angeles, Tahoe, and tons of sleepy coastal towns and redwood forests.
  • I got to indulge my inner nerd as one only can in this part of the world. Highlights included meeting some of the inventors of the first PCs at a reunion of the original Homebrew Computer Club, mingling with creative technologists at the XOXO conference in Portland, and a series of talks hosted by the Long Now Foundation.
  • I learned how to do some new things, mostly tinkering with technology: built a videogame computer, some electronics, made a simple drum machine. It somehow feels like hardware is at the same place that software was twenty years ago, which in retrospect turned out to be quite interesting.

Most exciting of all, with a new arrival due to enter our lives very soon I know that an entirely unknown territory lies ahead this next year. The world keeps getting bigger.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
– Mary Oliver

— 05 Jan 2014

I made a Monkey Island computer

Mainframe computers were such a rare commodity back in the day, people had to schedule shared time on each machine. When PCs arrived one computer was shared among a single household. Then came phones and each person had a computer of their own. Now lots of people have a pocket computer along with a couple of bigger ones at home, and some are even starting to wear computers on their wrists and heads. From the very beginning the ratio of computers to people steadily grew, and didn’t stop at 1:1. The computers, they’re multiplying!

Maybe they will diversify into single purpose computers. There are lots of potential uses for a simple computer that costs about as much as a toothbrush. At that price everyone would probably have quite a few of them at play in different parts of their life. With many computers for each person, they could be designed to act as tools that perform increasingly specific tasks. Is this overdoing it? It’s not essential to have one knife in your kitchen for cutting bread and another for buttering it, but it’s a convenience that most people accede to. These are computers melted into banal crannies, maybe feeling more like appliances.

Monkey Island computer

Or like toys. My favourites as a young buck were LucasArts adventure games: Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc. So for fun I made a single purpose computer that does nothing but run the single greatest piece of software of all time: Monkey Island 2. It’s made from a do-it-yourself piggy bank kit that I found randomly in a toy shop (toy shops: always worth a look), a Raspberry Pi, one of those screens that you can put in a car to see where you’re reversing, a tiny speaker, and a wireless mouse. They pretty much just snap together. All this stuff is cheap: the ingredients cost about sixty bucks on Amazon, or roughly the price of a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Monkey Island computer

I hadn’t fiddled with the hardware innards of a computer for ages. They’ve become entombed by the seemingly unstoppable trend towards compressing everything into the form of a pure, inert black diamond.

Monkey Island computer

Yes, this is silly weekend noodling, but as someone who mostly works in software I get a simple kick from messing about with the raw materials of computing. To break out of the screen and think about physical objects. There’s a world of interesting new UI opportunities to explore too. What should moving the lid do? Could I add a lock to the chest that makes something happen in the game? What software would I expect to find inside a wooden toy treasure chest anyway?

Moving from multi- to single-purpose UIs allows them to provide more specifically tailored affordances that suggest what I can do with them. There’s a big difference between grabbing a door handle and having to select Modify → Door → Open with a mouse pointer.

Anyway, single purpose computers: coming soon to a toy/hardware/clothes/food/etc. store near you? There continues to be plenty of room at the bottom.

— 27 Oct 2013

Kaeng Karp

You can’t wear sandals, you need them to play. And a stick, you need a stick. Two people are throwers. Everyone else stands in between the two throwers. To start the game, the throwers throw the confiscated sandals at the people in the middle, and the first one to get hit is designated the holder. Being holder is a bum job because the holder has to squat there holding a stick upright while flying sandals whistle past your head. Everyone else has to keep dodging sandals, grab the discarded ones, and hang them on the stick that their unfortunate teammate is holding up. If you’re hit by a sandal you’re out. You win if you hang all the sandals on the stick. The throwers win if they get everyone out before all the sandals are on the stick.

It’s called Kaeng Karp. Played in villages in southern Laos, here in a happy place called Tad Lo.

— 15 Jul 2013


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