Swimming in the Noise of What’s Next

Interview with Rick Barraza, Microsoft's Senior Technical Evangelist 

Rick wants to be clear: he stands behind everything he says 100%, but he is not speaking for Microsoft. As the man at Microsoft whose job it is to think about the future, sometimes he needs to say and explore things that are just a little too touchy for Microsoft to fully endorse—yet. 

Our interface to the Web, which dictates nearly all of the interactions we have with information, is about to change. Designers toss around the word “intuitive” a lot when they are explaining how easy it is to use their latest digital creation. In our chat with Rick Barraza, he tells us when our intuition can start to hurt us. 

As an evangelist, what signals are you pulling out of the noise around new technology?

Rick Barraza: Around 2006 or 2007, I latched onto a mantra, a quote from Allen Kay. He was asked, “How do you define technology?” And he gave my favorite answer: “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” It’s such a human reaction to it, the only way to define technology versus regular tools.

For my five-year-old, he walks into the living room and Kinect recognizes him and says, “Hi,” and he says,“Hi.” He’s in this world that would have been science fiction to me growing up. He has continuous access to data if he wants it and he will never be in a world where he needs to physically live somewhere to get access to information. Continuous access to data is not technology, it’s just ubiquitous—as ubiquitous as the wallpaper. 

This year, there are 7.1 billion transistors on a microchip.That’s a transistor for every man, woman and child. We’ve hit that corner in an exponential curve where things are getting really weird, really fast. 

All of a sudden, all of the computation that’s required to power the types of experiences we’ve grown accustomed to, even as quickly as we expect new things, now represents the minority of computational potential. 

It’s not a question of what we are going to do with the extra surplus, it’s that the stuff empowering our experiences is already the minority; it’s like 20 percent. Where is all of that extra computation and energy already going if we’re not seeing it as consumers right now? 

All this computational power, it’s not just sitting there, it’s been going into Virtual Reality [VR], Augmented Reality [AR], and mixed reality, it’s been going into Artificial Intelligence [AI] and zero interfaces. And that’s the paradigm that’s already shifted, that invisible realm you’re going to start feeling very quickly in marketing in the next 18 to 24 months. 

We’ve hit that corner in an exponential curve where things are getting really weird, really fast. 

In what way is marketing going to feel the effects of new interfaces? 

R B: AI’s one of the interfaces of the future. I’ve been calling that zero UI, or 1D interfaces. We traditionally think of interfaces as two-dimensional and the trend has been, as we say, pushing pretty pictures under glass. This is a good page layout for the Web because this is what the page layout has looked like for centuries and has looked like on static media. 

And so there are many beautiful websites that look like amazing book layouts. And a lot of us made a lot of money translating static layouts and metaphors onto the Web. But around 2003, those of us who were working at the front of Web design, our intuitions started feeling out of place. All of a sudden screens were starting to come in different sizes and shapes and resolutions. We needed to start thinking about liquid layouts. We didn’t even have the words for it. 

And I don’t know how long it took, but most of us had to do a switch from our thinking about page layout. It would be years of our intuition slowly building up to this hunch and people making noise that finally, around 2010, we started getting a name for it: ‘‘responsive design.” And now that’s what everybody talks about.

Intuition that has made us successful under one paradigm, becomes obsolete and holds us back when there are fundamental shifts in the paradigm. There’s a point if you’re at the leading end of something, your intuition that makes you profitable needs to be questioned because the paradigm is shifting.

We traditionally think of interfaces as two-dimensional and the trend has been, as we say, pushing pretty pictures under glass. 

The same thing’s happening right now. My Spidey Sense is going crazy just like it did in 2004, when layout started becoming fluid.

We have had an assumption that interfaces have been a 2D metaphor and all our future visions are pushing pretty pictures under glass. You can make a prettier picture and charge more for it, but the interface is still 2D. 

We have 1D coming online where there’s nothing visual, it’s just a single dimension of interface and it’s our voice speaking to an AI.That is also interface design, but it’s nothing visual, it’s one-dimensional.

We have 3D interfaces coming in and suddenly, we're not just floating postcards in space anymore. 

I believe a lot of people are going to run into the problem that their intuitions, that have been so primed for 2D design, are going to reject it. It’s going to be scary—they’ve only made money up to now being really, really good at 2D.

We need to be thinking of dimensionality in designing our interfaces. 2D’s not going away. And it’s not like AI’s the new interface, because there’s 1D, there’s 2D, and there’s 3D. So, we just have to be trained to look at design that much bigger. 

What would you recommend to User Experience [UX] designers if you wanted to start retooling them for the 1D / 3D world? What are the things people are doing just to get them exposed to these new paradigms? Or should we just fire them and hire a new generation? 

R B: As someone who has been in this for a while, I am definitely not suggesting fire the old and hire the new. There’s that feeling that everything has changed and nobody’s going to know about it for a couple of years.

What should we tell our designers to start learning? Nobody’s teaching this yet. Personally, I feel it’s still too early, I don’t even think we’re asking the right questions yet. Nobody should be in a position of prescribing the solution for it. We haven’t even gotten the keywords right—people are still confusing VR and AR and AI and zero UI. 

This is a fundamental shift in computation and creativity, just like the Internet was. 

Anybody who is saying, “Here’s the answer and learn this,” I think they’re trying to sell you something. I feel that we’re undergoing a fundamental shift in both design and computation and it’s powered by AI and it’s powered by immersive experiences that will redefine significantly how humans interact with technology.

Right now, I think it needs a lot of exploration and experimentation. And you really want to start looking at this stuff because this isn’t just another revolution. This is a fundamental shift in computation and creativity, just like the Internet was, just like mobile started to be—this big earthquake that follows the post-PC/mobile future. That’s what changed the nouns, but this is what will shift the verbs of how we interact with this technology. 


For the full interview with Rick, and what a career as an evangelist looks like, order the print version of Cloud&Co. No.2. You can also catch more of the content we are releasing from the magazine by subscribing to our newsletter or your social channel of choice.

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