Pause and Effect

Working from my PalmPilot using a folding QWERTY keyboard in Borneo (Sabah), Malaysia 2001.

Throughout my career I’ve tended to take a sabbatical every few years in order to re-evaluate my areas of interest and explore what opportunities exist to best apply them. As it happens, the periods that followed these pauses have led to some of my more interesting and rewarding career experience.

Sabbatical No.1: Media

My first sabbatical came in ’97 when the ‘multimedia’ (CD-ROM and kiosk :-) dev company I worked for closed its’ doors. While the odd web-focused freelance gig paid the bills, I spent the rest of my time exploring internet distributed media and applications. I created countless prototypes using the new ‘rich’ media tools of the day: QuickTime APIs, Flash-based UI components, and an app framework/runtime based on the then recently defunct Apple Media Tool. This was around the time that Enron was forecasting massive commodity bandwidth trading, and that always-on, high-speed, ubiquitous networks were apparently ‘just around the corner’.

Before too long, I found a job with a Toronto-based startup designing and prototyping entertainment products for these very networks. Our products included a host of ‘ingredients’, including layered audio and video, real-time interactivity, and early experiments in 360° audio and video VR. All too soon however, it became obvious that the network infrastructure required to deliver both the speed and bandwidth we required would be…um, slightly delayed. Despite contracts with big North American internet players, the extensive use of advanced compression algorithms, and some pretty aggressive deployment and caching techniques, we were unable to actually deploy our products to North American consumer networks.

This was six years before YouTube (2005) and eight years before Netflix (2007) so the only two countries on the planet with the necessary high-speed infrastructure were South Korea and Singapore — and our products were simply not designed for those markets or cultures.

Like any good start-up, we attempted a pivot, switching instead to realtime 2D/3D animation (far lower bandwidth requirements) to only this time fall foul of consumer hardware which wasn’t yet equipped with the CPUs — let alone GPUs — required to run these experiences.

It was around this time that I created the prototype that would go on to change my career. Barely an app, it was in fact a tiny 160x120 soundless (video) animation running on a monochrome Palm Pilot. A prototype that enabled a friend to wander the Cannes festival and pre-sell his animated short to international distributors. He didn’t need (nor could he afford) to set-up expensive screenings, spend lots of money on marketing or even attempt to arrange meetings with distributors. He simply walked around (aka ‘sneaker net’) showing the videos to anyone willing to give him the time of day. Surprisingly (for the time) it worked.

YouTube was still 4 years away.

Sabbatical No.2: Mobile

My second sabbatical came a year or so after the Palm Pilot prototype. While travelling extensively through Southeast Asia, Steph and had begun to notice the impact that technology — and more specifically mobile — was starting to have on the various cultures in the region. Strange words such as Nokia, Ericsson, SIM cards, GSM, CDMA, i-Mode, WAP, XHTML-MP, MIDlet, SMS and USSD entered my vocabulary, along with a ‘mobile moment’ near the summit of Mount Kinabalu that will forever will stick in my mind. A Finnish travelling companion took out his tiny Nokia, snapped a photo of the spectacular view, and instantly sent it to his mother in Finland — who he then proceeded to call to chat about his adventures. This was 2001, so mind blown!

Somewhere near the bottom of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Upon returning to Toronto, I tried to convince our executive team to let me begin prototyping mobile products. In North America however, mobile was still ‘cellular’ and pretty much just voice on ‘dumbphones’ with astronomical network costs. There was no interest, or understanding of how our relationship to technology was already beginning to change in Europe and Asia. Frustrated with the response, I left the company, convinced Steph to sell everything, and purchased two one way tickets to Indonesia.

We spent the next few of years living and working dubiously throughout Asia bouncing back and forth to Vancouver as necessary. We freelanced for North American clients from massive laptops relying on USB thumb drives and Internet cafés for large uploads, and our Nokias with local SIMs and minimal data plans for email, sms and whatever ‘mobile Internet’ we required. We also spent countless hours watching people from all walks of life use these new technologies in ways we couldn’t have imagined. This eventually led us to form yiibu in order to fully focus on designing products for these emerging devices. In 2005, the epicentre of mobile dev and design was Europe — largely Helsinki, Berlin and London, and as Steph and I both held European passports, it was a fairly easy decision. We (once again) sold everything, loaded up our backpacks and bought two one-way tickets to ‘that London’.

During our nine years in the UK we built a successful business, worked with some fantastically talented people and gained an invaluable amount of experience designing for highly variable commodity hardware, software, and networks. We worked on the design of several mobile operating systems, OS-level apps, mobile browsers (and countless products that run within them) as well as many products aimed at consumers in emerging economies.

In early 2012 however, things began to change. Mobile had become a commodity, designing for them was viewed as a significant competitive advantage, and as such, the work was often being brought in-house. Large companies started hoovering up design talent — often purchasing entire companies to jumpstart the process. We eventually succumbed to this trend and joined a travel search company with whom we’d been consulting with for some time. Toward the end of 2014 however, and after close to a decade in ‘mobile’ I decided I had had enough and needed to explore other options. I needed another sabbatical.

Sabbatical No.3: Evolution

I spent early 2015 reading, exploring new ideas, and experimenting. I read books on literature, history, theatre and philosophy and a vast collection of papers on sociology, anthropology and computer science. I dabbled in recreational mathematics (I still REALLY suck at maths), explored ‘creative computing’ and began tinkering with hardware and IoT despite my long-standing aversion to all things requiring soldering. I also briefly became distracted by some television and indie games — not to mention the whole Twitch thing — which then led me to ponder the opportunities around creating ‘games for people who don’t play games’. This compelled to me to spend a week replaying old Infocom text adventures while composing generative audio soundtracks using Ableton Live, which led to me experimenting with a few conversational UI prototypes…which much to my dismay brought me right back to maths — but with a shiny new interest in machine learning.

In the middle of all this, Steph and I also came to a decision. Many of our friends and colleagues had gradually left Europe for North America or Asia — and were urging us to do the same. While we both absolutely loved Edinburgh, we decided to leave the UK and move to Vancouver for better access to companies on the west coast and throughout APAC.

So here I am, a year and a bit later in Vancouver my head swimming with a years worth of fresh, yet random ideas. I’m a little older, which means I have stronger opinions about change (spoiler: “It happens, get used to it.”). My real issue however is I that I have a few hard limits I’m not likely to ever move past. I hate maths. Well, actually I do like maths, but looking at equations makes me physically ill — literally my eyes glaze over and I want to vomit — which of course makes it rather difficult to do anything meaningful with said maths. In fact, the only thing that causes a deeper, more visceral reaction in me than maths is unassembled electronic components (especially those that require soldering). In my imagination hell is full of people forced into an eternity of maths and soldering.

What’s Next?

I’m (finally) coming to the end of my sabbatical and it’s time to figure out what I want to work on next. What’s going to keep my attention for the next decade, and where do I see the best opportunities given my current ideas, interests and experience?

I considered IoT (which is increasingly what yiibu works on these days, and will likely continue to do so). There’s lots there to explore, and ‘smart’ things often conveniently share the same constraints found in early mobile devices (constrained memory, slower CPUs, low-power requirements, variable connectivity etc.).

Next generation UIs (NoUIs, conversational UIs, bots, etc) are really intriguing, and tend to be a natural evolution to the social apps we increasingly spend our lives communicating through (…unless you live in China where they’ve started to basically replace the internet). They also rely a great deal on machine learning, which if not for my above-mentioned maths allergy, I would love to dig into much deeper.

But from my perspective, the above options are all variations on a larger theme. Computing and sensors will become ubiquitous and fade into the background (see Mark Weiser’sUbiquitous Computing’ work at Xerox PARC). Many (though not all) of our interactions will shift from touch screens, mice and keyboards to voice, gesture and other sensor arrays. As we begin to adopt these new interaction patterns, we’ll increasingly rely on machine learning and intelligent agents (the term AI is IMHO misleading) to interpret and act upon our intents. This is simply evolutionary — albeit undeniably transformative. If we’re successful, this will simply be the new status quo, and where our new expectations and mental models will begin.

While I am hugely excited by all of these ideas, I’ve recently found myself wanting to scratch a rather unexpected itch: Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality…but not necessarily as most people currently think about it.