Whenever I am asked about my experiences thus far at Torch, I inevitably start describing the hundreds of conversations with designers and developers we've had since we first started in early 2017. The willingness of people to give us their time and energy in the form of testing, thoughtful and often exquisitely detailed feedback, and flat out encouragement has been the single most delightful aspect of building Torch.
This generosity started at GDC in March of 2017 when Silka Miesnieks (shout out to Silka) helped run a user focus group of designers from Facebook and HTC where we tried to pinpoint choke points in the 3D content creation workflow (memorialized in the Wall of Pain), and continues to this day – our design team ran six to ten in-depth usability interviews a week in December. In between, we've conducted hundreds of user feedback sessions, run six surveys, and parsed through a steady stream of emails full of well-reasoned critiques. In short, more than any product I've worked on before, Torch AR has benefited from the enthusastic engagement of our users.
We've always tried to reciprocate that generosity of spirit and intellect, sharing back to the community what we've gleaned in the form of white papers, resources for educators, scholarships to conferences, and free or low-cost training sessions.
To continue in this spirit of reciprocity, in 2019 we are going to go a bit further to spotlight members of our community who have helped us get to where we are.
We first connected with Andrés Cuervo almost exactly a year ago, before we were even in beta, when we began to survey users to find out who would be interested in trying out a very early version of Torch, more alpha than anything and decidedly different than what we eventually released. At the time, Andrés was about to join Google's Daydream team. Over the next year we frequently talked, and I came to appreciate his open-minded and tolerant attitude to new software – he was probably the first person to pull their own Tiltbrush model in through Google Poly. And it wasn't just with Torch. Andrês seemed to embrace everything that came out with equal enthusiasm, trying to fit all the pieces into the ideal workflow that he had in his mind. But most of all, Andrés approached his explorations with a refreshing attitude of curiosity and playfulness. It was these qualities that made us want to make him our first interview of 2019.
I hope you'll find this as enjoyable and thought-provoking as I did.
TORCH: Even before you reached out to try the beta, we were either following you or seeing you a lot on Twitter because of you were one of those people who, the minute a new technology came out, were exploring, trying it out, pushing the boundaries, and sharing what you found. Is that a fair characterization?
AQ: I'd say that's true in general, though I don't know if I put as much foresight into it as the questions suggests, e.g. "pushing the boundaries, and sharing what you found". It's more like I've always had a passion for art and technology, so any tools that let me merge those interests excites me, both because it allows me to play around with my own interest in this intersection but also because seeing a prototype/product attempt to address these gives me new ideas about how people see art and technology merging. Every new piece of technology presents new ideas about art and design through the visual and experience design, the technical limits, and how those things all interact. Digging into all this is fascinating and so I share what I can on social media because others probably find it interesting!
TORCH: A lot of time is spent trying to justify the business value of new technologies. We’ve become a lot more interested in play. In exploration without a need to produce a verifiable result. What role does play serve in your own experience of technology?
AQ: I started out in tech interning in an education technology nonprofit and have done research in designing educational interfaces and the clearest lesson those experiences taught me is play is a big part of helping people learn, I've seen people (myself included) get distracted by the drudgery of repetition or hopelessness of not knowing because they were eased by the process of learning being playful. Possibly even more importantly, it can be a good way to—pun intended—play around with a concept.
Exploring the boundaries of something, especially something as complicated as augmented reality or interface design, can be exhausting, so couching AR or design explorations in play for me is a way to keep me encouraged to actually try out a new idea. That kind of play—just toying around with an idea or technology—can't be motivated purely by the practical component though, it has to really be about balance, turning off the part of your brain that's always looking for a way to quantify/verify/strategize around something, and forcing yourself into this mode is the relaxing, deeply comforting benefit of play in my work.
TORCH: How does Dynamicland fit into this?
AQ: Dynamicland is in some ways an entire ecosystem of play with computers! Going on computers today—desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, watches—often means our connections to others are mediated by social media, going deep into an internet rabbit hole that we're distracted by, or doing menial tasks in user-unfriendly software. Dynamicland is focused on creating a humane computational medium, and the humane part of that definition means it's shared by default—today this looks like projectors lining an entire research space in Oakland, where programs are pieces of paper the computer sees and executes. These programs can move around with the paper, talk to other parts of the system using statements called Wishes, and have a bunch of other fascinating properties.
Even though today we're still programming in a conventional sense, programming using Realtalk (the language Dynamicland is written in) feels magical because you're using a connected keyboard, typing right onto a piece of paper, and you can print/change/run it at any time. There's a lot of impressive computer vision and projection mapping going into all of this, but the true power of Dynamicland is the publicness of programming there. In Dynamicland there are no personal screens, and any program can affect any other, so everything is shared by default. People often see each others' interesting projects and combine them, or even see others struggling and can go find a piece of paper with some code that might help them. In the future low cost 3D tracking and even more fluid ways of programming in the space might define how we interact with computers and Dynamicland seems like a place where all the benefits I talked about with play meet up with research to create a really interesting space!
TORCH: One thing that has surprised us at Torch as we began to focus on augmented reality (and mobile AR specifically) is the sociable or communal aspect of this sort of computing. We wrote about it here and we see that communal computing is a big part of Dynamicland’s mission? Do you share this enthusiasm about mobile AR?
AQ: Oh definitely! The reason building a "communal computer" is the first part of Dynamicland's mission is because it completely changes the things we can do with computer when we design them with this property from the ground up. One of the troubles with screen-based computing—which Torch is helping to solve for the current generation of mobile AR—is the fact that digital apps are solo-by-default. You need to build in networking, and for AR you need even more: syncing views, cameras, transforms, geometry—you have to invent a whole universe before the fun can begin!
(Visit Omar Rizwan's blog to learn more about Geokit.)
In Dynamicland you don't need a phone, headset, contact lenses, anything besides sight (side note: it's a continuing goal, for me at least, to think about how to make this universally accessible) to walk up to a table or wall or sit on a fuzzy rug and start moving around pieces of paper, reading the code that's on them, and start changing things! The space has supported dozens of people simultaneously because of this property, and it's electrifying to be in a space where computing is just contiguous and social, where you can pull out a map and talk about the data visualization on it, or where everyone can change all the music in the space simply by turning a page in a book (both real things that have happened at Dynamicland!) AR is compelling because it's closer to how we experience the world, it makes sense that shared AR scenes are even more compelling: interacting with our fellow humans is foundational to the human experience.
TORCH: Finally, and related to all of the above: another place where you and I seem to overlap is in our interests in progressive politics (and more specifically the principle that human rights are universal and should be defended vigorously against those who seek to profit of the denial of these rights either because of bigotry or in search of profit). How do you square this working in tech, which so frequently starts out as a object of play and exploration and ends up being used for, well, shitty things?
AQ: I definitely haven't solved this question yet, but a guiding light for me has been left accelerationism: the idea that with our globally connected, security-obsessed, hyper-militarized version of capitalism can only be pushed back against by a form of anti-capitalism that co-opts tools of capitalism to create cooperatives, displace capitalists, and distribute wealth back to workers. Those are a lot of good goals, but I definitely don't live up to this vision day-to-day, I think my work is incrementally inspired by this ideology. I see my speculative interaction design with screen-less AR as pushing people to imagine what would happen if we could use the tools of surveillance and consumer electronics (technologies that are simultaneously convenient and rooted in inequality and abuse of power) as communal benefits that raise up society—like libraries—instead of individual possessions that instrument ad-based data economies.
I hope that by working in emerging technology while researching and designing experiences around this through play, forming communities, and spreading this message with my art I can do my part to further the anticapitalist imagination and do a small part to change a society that thinks it needs to compromise with shitty things.
2019 is the year of 3D creators. We'd love to feature your story here. If you have a project or story to share with this community of AR designers and technologists, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.