Made by Jarrett Webb: Meta-Magical Computing
Jarrett Webb is a developer, technologist, and award-winning designer who has worked in software and product design for 21 years. His work has been featured at the London Olympics, in AT&T stores worldwide, on 60 Minutes and Discovery Canada, and in most county jails in the state of Texas. He is also the author of Beginning Kinect Programming with the Microsoft Kinect SDK.
He claims he is “Not a Robot”, but this cannot be substantiated.
As a creative technologist, what is your role in the design process?
My goal is to produce meaningful and creative experiences that empower, captivate, or inspire people. I love exploring new spaces, perspectives, and ideas with wonder and freedom. Computation is my medium — I make by code — but the outputs are expressed through various digital technologies and are fundamentally about the interaction between people and computation.
Cast as a designer, I’ve built interactive prototypes to inform design, speculated about technology futures through computational design inquiry, and led product design teams. Working in digital product design and strategy lets me explore the dynamics of human and computing experiences in both academic and practical senses.
Tell me about the leap from developer to creative technologist.
I knew very early that my life would be connected with computers. Being in digital design is just a natural part of the journey.
My first ‘wow’ moment came when my elementary school got some Apple ][ computers.
They sat in the hallway outside the classrooms. I’d misbehave in class so the teacher would kick me out into the hall, where I was free to work on the computers.
There are three elements to creating meaningful computational experiences: technology, design, and product strategy. I’ve found I’m my best when I’m working in all three spaces. And that’s what I do as a creative technologist.
What are you exploring now?
Currently, my focus is on spatial computing as experienced through head-mounted devices. This nascent form of computing has a great breadth of possible interactions and experiences. Spatial computing is at a fascinating point in its maturation — right now, everyone is fumbling around in the dark to find stability and orientation. There is a sense of haste to find the one general interaction model, as there with with desktop or mobile computing in their nascent periods. The biggest challenge with this computing paradigm is that it is extraordinarily multi-modal and contextual to the environment and not just to the content. We’ll likely find there isn’t only one model.
How are we going to design products for spatial computing?
Other forms of computing, like desktop and mobile, exist in well-defined environments with clear and established constraints on user interaction. With spatial computing, we’re designing systems and less curated experiences. Spatial computing is part of the chaos of the physical world, where the dynamics are unpredictable and emergent.
Designers and product owners will have to do a lot of research to better understand how humans operate in environments and ecosystems. The interaction dynamics are between humans, technology, and the environment, with the environment directly influencing the interaction.
A technology form might thrive in some ecosystems and die in others. With a deeper understanding of this dynamic, we can better design experiences for complex ecosystems. A fascinating question to explore is: what happens when a technology is introduced into a new ecosystem? How does an ecosystem change a technology? Can it evolve to survive in the new ecosystem? How does a technology change that ecosystem? Should a technology be designed for the ecosystem and not humans? My earlier work with Interactive Light explored these questions.
Always design for humans, right?
Yes, and we need to also design for the technology. Automation has moved from being mechanical to computational. More and more, we’ll design services and communication to be optimized for computers because they will be doing the work. This is far from new but is becoming more pervasive.
As we better understand this complex nature of digital technology, we should celebrate it. Let it exist unto itself. I like the term compumorphism to frame phenomena and behavior of computing objects. I think compumorphism should sit alongside anthropomorphism and zoomorphism.
A walking and talking cartoon mouse is an example of giving anthropomorphic qualities to animals. Add sensors and computation to a room, and you imbue the room with compumorphic properties. It is now neither just a room, nor only a computer, but both. I want to explore the nature of this new thing.
Another example is how robots are often designed to be anthropomorphic, and we end up having something akin to C-3PO from Star Wars. If we let them be compumorphic, they are not restricted to be in the form and nature of their maker. Add computation to a trash can, and you get R2-D2. I think we need more R2-D2 and less C-3PO.
Defining agency for compumorphic things is critical and will affect how we design these future products. How much agency do we give them, and how much control can we expect to maintain once they are released into the world? How much agency do they genuinely have, or how much do we project onto them? For example, was HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey evil? To say yes implies that it had agency and didn’t behave according to some unintended consequence in its AI training (nurturing), a software bug, a virus, or affected negatively by the environment (e.g., under the influence of a supernatural entity).
Let’s say there is a product that is a digital assistant that is based on my meta-me (a repository of data produced by me and synthesized to create a digital form of me). I might have many instances of this product, each optimized for different tasks. Any one instance would be capable of making decisions for me or conducting interactions as a compumorphic representation of me — my para-self. These entities will be the user or consumer of other products and experiences, which will lead to wholly different design principles than if the user were human.
Thinking about these things inspires me, but actually making these ideas real and testing them excites me.
Is there anywhere else you draw inspiration?
Designers are a constant source of inspiration. They think differently from most people, especially technologists and engineers. They are fluid, aspirational, and unbounded thinkers. Being surrounded by alternate perspectives and creativity is stimulating and sublime.
I also follow the work of many speculative designers, generative artists, and artists building technology-based interactive installations. So much of the work in this space can be brought forward and applied practically to product design and strategy.