Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Visions of the Present

The ever-increasing progress of humanity over the last few centuries is remarkable. The difference in where we are today as compared to a hundred years ago is scarcely believable, to say the least. All of those “visions of the future” videos made in the 1950s are, by and large, reality. A newspaper, a friend’s face and your favourite song are just a click away.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about similar projections of the future by Microsoft and RIM (and the other) in this context. These are broad ideas of the future and, while I may joke about the lack of basic physics in each, I genuinely think there are many approximations of where things are headed (unlike Microsoft’s old “visions” video).

Many of the technologies in these films already exist. Real-time collaboration, video chat, dictation and remote hotel check-in are all with us here, today, now. But the real magic of these videos is in the seamless integration of these things. This idea is one that seems to work best on Android devices. Since any application can tap into a contextual menu, it becomes trivial to move documents around between apps on the same device. But Apple is more in tune with seamless integration across devices; iCloud can sync everything down to the position of the text insertion cursor. The other aspect of the videos that I noticed was the forward-thinking user interfaces. Many of the interfaces shown are completely impractical and utterly inefficient, but there’s an overwhelming sense of flatness [1]. There’s no texture in the future, no gloss and no opacity. Everything is flat, geometric and simple. This seems to be a common thread amongst the current technology companies: Microsoft and RIM show it in their videos (and Microsoft is implementing it in Metro) and Google is building it into Android 4. Apple, however, is moving in a more tactile direction, increasingly using real-world, realistically-rendered textures (as I’ve previously discussed). It remains to be seen which is the better approach. Also a constant across these future visions videos are frameless, print-quality displays. All the pieces exist to make these displays today, including non-reflective glass, high-DPI panels and optical lamination to fuse them together. It’s an expensive prospect right now, but within a few years these monitors will start appearing.

The technology is all there. This is a shippable, reasonable prospect. But it won’t happen because Microsoft is bent on legacy support. Windows 8, for example, has a Metro interface for touch input and is a complete re-think of what Windows should be. But some nosy accountant decided that it needed to support old Windows applications, which is such a shitty idea. It compromises the focus of the OS and renders any attempt at progress null and void. For some reason, the management at Microsoft can’t wrap their head around the idea that revolutionary change doesn’t have to carry the burden of history. Users who need to run old Windows applications should run an old version of Windows. Users who have a touch display and want a new experience should run the new version of Windows. In fact, scrap the Windows brand and call it Metro, to make it less confusing. Don’t stop at the desktop OS, either; brand everything Metro that resembles this new look. Metro and Metro Phone. It doesn’t have to run the old stuff because it’s new. They can keep selling Windows — they have enough manpower to support both paradigms — but there’s no reason to provide Windows users with anything more than security updates and bug fixes.

Once you start removing the Minority Report-esque sheen, the underlying technology of these visionary videos is broadly here already. It just doesn’t work as perfectly as a rendered, rotoscoped, post-produced interpretation. It also can’t exist in a legacy, constantly backwards-compatible world.

  1. And Gotham. In the future, everything is Gotham. I guess Segoe isn’t timeless. [↑]