Author Archive

The Tech Trend Haiku

May 20, 2014 by in 3D Scanning, Augmented Reality, BodyMetrics, iBeacon, Opinion, Retail, Technology

2014 has seen a proliferation of articles about tech trends — this is, as it were, the trend in tech trends. News outlets, consultancies, and the random web page all feel an urgency about putting their two cents in.

Even as more voices are being heard about what to expect in the near future (or more accurately, the ‘intimate future’), what is actually said seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Moreover, what is being said seems to be getting recycled year over year.

Where near future predictions used to be long and thoughtful, intimate future predictions have become terse and uniform. This process is known to economists as the process of commoditization. What was once crafted is now generic, easily digestible, and able to be mass produced: predictions in 140 characters or less.

This trend of writing about tech trends seems to be running out of steam. Repetition and terseness are sure signs of an exhausted meme. They are last year’s fashion.

This is a shame, as they clearly once had a purpose in informing, inspiring and entertaining us. In an attempt to revive the genre, the Razorfish Emerging Experiences team has decided to take the trend to its logical conclusion: The Tech Trend Haiku. Enjoy.

Razorfish Emerging Experiences’
Tech Trend Haiku

Surveillance culture
Puts us all in glass houses:
Reality’s show.

The Quantified Self
Takes the means of surveillance
Back from government.

Technology and
Fashion allow me to find
My socks. Wherables.

The revolution
Will be tweeted on an app
You’ve never heard of.

“Drones on leashes shoot
Aerial photos” — creepy.
Drone on, drone, drone on…

All things great and small
Will have unique addresses:
Internet of things.

A 3-D printer
Printed itself from old parts.
The circle of life.

New studies show tech
Harms attention spans among
Lost attention span.

Reality augmented
Through tinted glasses. Only
Virtually real.

Self-driving cars are
A placeholder for our hearts’
Desire: flying cars.

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Kinect for Windows v2 First Look

Dec 04, 2013 by in Kinect, Lab, Technology

I’ve had a little less than a week to play with the new Kinect for Windows v2 so far, thanks to the developer preview program and the Kinect MVP program. So far it is everything Kinect developers and designers have been hoping for – full HD through the color camera and a much improved depth camera as well as USB 3.0 data throughput.

Additionally, much of the processing is now occurring on the GPU rather than the onboard chip or your computer’s CPU. While amazing things were possible with the first Kinect for Windows sensor, most developers found themselves pushing the performance envelope at times and wishing they could get just a little more resolution or just a little more data speed.  Now they will have both.

At this point the programming model has changed a bit between Kinect for Windows v1 and Kinect for Windows v2. While knowing the original SDK will definitely give you a leg up, a bit of work will still need to be done to port Kinect v1 apps to the new Kinect v2 SDK when it is eventually released.

What’s different between the new Kinect for XBox One and the Kinect for Windows v2?  It turns out not a lot. The Kinect for XBox has a special USB 3.0 adapter that draws both lots of power as well as data from the XBox One. Because it is a non-standard connector, it can’t be plugged straight into a PC (unlike with the original Kinect which had a standard USB 2.0 plug).

To make the new Kinect work with a PC, then, requires a special breakout board. This board serves as an adapter with three ports – one for the Kinect, one for a power source, finally one for a standard USB 3.0 cable.

We can also probably expect the firmware on the two versions of the new Kinect sensor to also diverge over time as occurred with the original Kinect.

Skeleton detection is greatly improved with the new Kinect.  Not only are more joints now detected, but many of the jitters developers became used to working around are now gone. The new SDK recognizes up to 6 skeletons rather than just two. Finally, because of the improved Time-of-Flight depth camera, which replaces the Primesense technology used in the previous hardware, the accuracy of the skeleton detection is much better and includes excellent hand detection.  Grip recognition as well as Lasso recognition (two fingers used to draw) are now available out of the box – even in this early alpha version of the SDK.

I won’t hesitate to say – even this early in the game – that the new hardware is amazing and is leaps and bounds better than the original sensor. The big question, though, is whether it will take off the way the original hardware did.

If you recall, when Microsoft released the first Kinect sensor they didn’t have immediate plans to use it for anything other than a game controller – no SDK, no motor controller, not a single luxury. Instead, creative developers, artists, researchers and hackers figured out ways to read the raw USB data and started manipulating it to create amazingly original applications that took advantage of the depth sensor – and they posted them to the Internet.

Will this happen the second time around?  Microsoft is endeavoring to do better this time by getting an SDK out much earlier. As I mentioned above, the alpha SDK for Kinect v2 is already available to people in the developer preview program. The trick will be in attracting the types of creative people that were drawn to the Kinect two years ago – the kind of creative technologists Microsoft has always had trouble attracting toward other products like Windows Phone and Windows tablets.

My colleagues and I at Razorfish Emerging Experiences are currently working on combining the new Kinect with other technologies such as Oculus Rift, Google Glass, Unity 3D, Cinder, Leap Motion and 4K video. Like a modern day scrying device (or simply a mad scientist’s experiment) we hoping that by simply mixing all these gadgets together we’ll get a glimpse at what the future looks like and, perhaps, even help to create that future.


Leap Motion Unboxing

Jul 29, 2013 by in Lab, Technology

No editorializing; just showing our initial experience with the gestural device that fits in the palm of your hand.


The Presence of Technology

Nov 07, 2012 by in Microsoft Kinect, News, Technology

 

At the same time the //Build/ conference was going down in Redmond, Washington, I was next door in Seattle for the Seattle Interactive Conference (SIC://). Besides a fondness for forward slashes, these two conferences shared a common interest in the future of technology. //Build approached this topic from the software side while SIC:// did it from the design and agency side. The Kinect for Windows technology, interestingly, was present at both events.

I was invited to SIC:// in order to represent EE on a panel about Natural User Interfaces. It was an amazing panel that included David Kung from Oblong, Matt von Trott from Assembly Ltd, Scott Snibbe from Snibbe Interactive and John Gaeta of FLOAT Hybrid. Our conversation about what NUI means today was preceded by an amazing fifteen minute talk by Oscar Murillo that showed off many K4W techniques in a holodeck-like demo. You can read more about the panel here and here. It was expertly moderated by Steve Clayton of Microsoft.

What made the event fascinating for me was the time I got to spend with the other panelists before our talk and after. There was a clear trajectory in our backgrounds. John is involved in the motion picture industry and helped design many of the futuristic movies (like The Matrix) that have inspired the rest of us to work with bleeding-edge interface technology. Dave’s company brought forward advanced academic research to actually realize Minority Report (one of Oblong’s founders helped design the gestural interface Tom Cruise uses in the movie). Microsoft turned gestural interfaces into a consumer technology. Matt, Scott and I are using it for retail and marketing which will help fund and expand the proliferation of gestural sensors. Our collective goal is to create technology that anticipates and responds to our desires rather than simply frustrating us on most days.

We want to use technology, when it comes down to it, to hide the presence of technology in our everyday lives.


5D at Oracle OpenWorld

Oct 30, 2012 by in 5D, Microsoft Kinect, Microsoft Surface, Touchscreen


In early October, the Emerging Experiences practice’s San Francisco office brought our Razorfish 5D retail platform to Oracle OpenWorld. Within this global event was the first ever Customer Experience Summit. This event gathered industry leaders together to discuss strategies for driving customer-centric initiatives while interacting with some of the most future-forward experiences and minds.

Emerging Experiences set up our Razorfish 5D retail experience in beautiful Union Square park. We demonstrated how a seamless customer journey can cross over touch tables, gestural sensors, digital screens, tablets and mobile apps to transform the retail experience.

The 5D installation for Oracle CX showed how each element of the contemporary brick-and-mortar store can be enhanced and streamlined. Digital displays, smartphones and HD touch tables communicated with each other to provide infinite shelves as well as an immersive experience to tell the stories behind the store brands.

Tablet software provided store associates with the opportunity to not only help shoppers select items, but even interact with their customer’s smartphones. The 5D retail experience also demonstrated how virtual dressing rooms with augmented reality can enhance the retail experience. Each of these touch-points in turn generates massive amounts of data about the sales process.

Sharing our retail story with the attendees at the Oracle Customer Experience Summit was both extremely rewarding and entertaining. We look forward to returning next year.


Concerning Old Books

Apr 13, 2012 by in Experience Design, Technology

a box of booksThere are few things sadder than a pile of old technical books. They live on dusty bookshelves and in torn cardboard boxes as testament to the many things we never accomplished in our lives. Some cover fads that came and went before we even had time to peruse their contents. Others cover supposedly essential topics we turned out to be able to program perfectly well without – topics like algebra, geometry and software methodology.

The saddest thing about old technical books is that by “old” what we really mean is anything published more than three years ago. We no longer burn books in civilized countries so these 3+ year old books simply take up space. We can’t throw them out. We can’t sell them on eBay. We can’t even give them away.

You can imagine how surprised we were during a recent spring cleaning in the Emerging Experiences facilities, then, to find nearly decade old books that seem remarkably relevant to the 2012 technology landscape. We found a dozen books on beginning, intermediate and advanced JavaScript which, somehow, has become a first-class development language over the past year. There were half-a-dozen books exhorting readers to pay careful attention to their CSS. We found an academic tome on Human-Computer Interaction. We even found a copy of Dietel & Dietel’s classic How To Program C++ book. On the upcoming Windows 8 platform, C++ is set up to be the language discerning developers will be using to do both game and interactive programming as managed code takes a back seat at Microsoft for the first time in ten years.

The greatest treasure we pulled out of ye olde cardboard box, however, was a stack of Flash books. Unlike the case with JavaScript and C++, we do not think Flash is making any sort of comeback. Flash is dead. What is not dead are the visual concepts those fantastic Flash developers came up with as well as the algorithms they came up with to implement those concepts.

Take for instance the New Masters of Flash series. These are first of all beautifully designed books. They are written by a slew of masters of the technology who are each given a few pages to discuss their inspirations, provide a cool concept and then show how they approached the solution. Cool concepts include animating a 3D chessboard, animated typography vis-à-vis The Matrix, creating a pointillism artistic mask for text and images, and taking a simple shadow effect to its logical extremes. The highlight of the book is probably Irene Chan’s introductory essay on feminism, art and the role of websites. It’s not something one would expect to find in a technical book and speaks to the amazing community that developed around Flash.

What particularly amazed us about these Flash books was the number of ideas we have stolen from Flash over the years in our interactive WPF and Silverlight applications. Things like naturalistic flip books, fluid dynamics emulators and parallaxing – often considered cutting edge stuff in the XAML and XNA worlds — were already old hat in the Flash world a decade ago. Even more wondrous were the vast number of concepts we found in these books that have never been implemented in either WPF or Silverlight. A slightly greater number have been done in CSS + JavaScript, but still only a fraction of what could be found in these books.

All of this is simply a way of observing, once again, that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, even in software where we often pretend that we are in constant Kurzweillian motion and slouching toward the Singularity. It is also a recognition of the essential role Flash has played in interactive media. Flash has shown us what can be done and, in many cases, we have yet to surpass what it accomplished all those years ago. Flash is dead. Long live Flash.

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Finding Things to Project On

Nov 16, 2011 by in Experience Design, Technology

Occassionally we get downtime on the Emerging Experiences team — but not very much.  After a recent project we decided to play with some of the technology we have lying around.  One of our favorite toys for 2012 is the high-end projector (pick yours up for Christmas now!).  With a powerful projector you can create great interactive experiences on glass, on store windows, on mist, on water and so on.  When a projector is pointed at a flat surface, it creates the illusion of depth.  Lately we have been playing with the idea of shining a projector on surfaces that already have depth.  Next step — hooking this up to an array of Kinect sensors to see what projecting on 3D surfaces that interact with 3D depth cameras will look like.


Getting Up Close to the Kinect

Nov 03, 2011 by in Microsoft Kinect, Technology

As we approach the one year anniversary of the Kinect launch, Microsoft has announced that the Kinect for PC Commercial SDK will be released in early 2012 (http://majornelson.com/2011/10/31/xbox-360-celebrates-one-year-anniversary-of-the-kinect-effect/). More than 200 businesses worldwide, including Toyota, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Razorfish, are involved in a pilot program to explore the commercial possibilities of the Kinect.

Until now, most companies working with the Kinect have been working within the constraints of a research license for the Kinect SDK. Consequently the applications that corporations have been working on have been restricted to tightly held private projects or, at most, proof-of-concept projects visible only as demo reels on the Internet. While most people are at least aware of the Kinect technology, the terms of the research license has relegated it to being an afterthought or something only understood at a distance – a nice to have.

The recent announcement of the timeline for the commercial license implicitly green lights these projects to make preparations for releasing Kinect-enabled applications for everyday use. Over the next year we can expect to see the Kinect as a ubiquitous part of our daily environments and something just as prevalent as interactive kiosks are today. The spread of the Kinect beyond the living room may be as dramatic as the proliferation of smart phones or tablets – one day no one knew what they were and, the next, everyone seemed to have one. In boardrooms across America, the question will no longer be one of whether to have a Kinect strategy but instead what that strategy is.

As the Kinect becomes more prevalent in our daily lives, the possibilities and limitations of the Kinect will undergo much closer scrutiny. The potential offered by a mass produced device that provides a video camera, an infrared depth camera and a four microphone array with beamforming capabilities is vast. The technology can be taken in multiple directions including computer vision in robotics, 3D modeling with multiple linked devices, inexpensive augmented reality, hands-free interactive experiences, speech recognition based in-store assistance and innovative computer assisted learning.

That Microsoft’s visionary strategy in designing the Kinect has revolved around off-loading processing to the operating system rather than building it solely into the hardware means that complex scenarios not currently supported by the Xbox can be made viable through improved software and processing power on computers and video cards, the price of which are constantly falling. Microsoft’s Kinect technology is actually scalable and does not require improving the Kinect hardware itself but, instead, on simply improving the software that processes the data streamed by the Kinect.

This all leads to the inevitable question – what is the future of the Kinect? After a year, what are second generation Kinect applications going to look like? The answer depends on where Microsoft takes Kinect software going forward. The current research version of the Kinect SDK beta shows its roots in gaming. The visual processing, depth processing and even acoustical models are tied to the limitations and optimizations required for the Xbox 360 gaming system. They all work best in a room about the size of your living room and even begin to have troubles in small apartments. The microphone array seems to work well in standard rooms, for which it has painstakingly been optimized to deal with surround sound speakers and audio reflections off of furniture, but appears to have trouble in large spaces.

Strikingly, even though the depth camera is capable of 640 x 480 resolutions, the current SDK only provides access to 320 x 240 image streams. The Kinect SDK, likewise, does not provide depth data information for objects within 800 mm (about 2 ½ feet) of the Kinect sensor even though the camera does capture this information.

There are clearly performance reasons for setting these limitations. However part of the problem also appears to be related to the fact that the USB connector for the Kinect is a bottleneck and has been throttled for the particular USB controller configuration requirements of the Xbox. As the Kinect moves out of the living room and into the real world, it makes sense to leave the restrictions imposed by tying the Kinect SDK to the Xbox behind. If we can use improved software running on improved hardware to boost the capabilities of Kinect for PC applications, it would be a shame to have a gaming infrastructure be the main showstopper.

Nowhere is this more clear than when we consider using the Kinect in the office. As a Kinect developer, I have to slide my chair back and away from my monitor whenever I want to debug a piece of code. Fortunately I don’t work in a cubicle and have some open space behind me. I am also fortunate that my chair has wheels and I have the code – slide – code routine down pat. However I don’t see anyone wanting to use a Kinect-enabled business application in this way. Unlike the living room, which is the natural space of our home lives, the office environment of our work lives is generally cramped and close to the screen with just enough room for a keyboard between us and our monitor. We are always within two and a half feet of the objects we work with.

Yet the workspace is one of the chief places we want to see our Kinects working. And instead of large arm movements, we would like to wave our hands or snap our fingers in order to make things happen on our screens. We want The Minority Report writ small. In order to achieve this, in turn, we need to move beyond skeletal tracking and start enabling fine finger tracking.

Along the same lines, for larger movements, the skeletal tracking capabilities of the Kinect only work with the full body. At the office, sitting in our office chairs, we typically never see anything below the waist. Even skeletal tracking, then, needs to be modified to take this into account and to support partial skeleton tracking at the software level.

As the Kinect is being allowed to travel beyond our living rooms with the upcoming release of the commercial Kinect SDK, the software that allows developers to build applications for the Kinect needs to cut its strong dependence on gaming scenarios. This is the natural future for a technology that is maturing. This is where the Kinect is headed – not only out into the world but also up in our faces. We want and need to get closer to the Kinect.


The Microsoft BUILD conference, Windows 8, and the new UX Challenge

Sep 20, 2011 by in Experience Design, Multi-touch, Technology

Before the BUILD conference, the one thing we all knew was that Microsoft needed a multitouch tablet strategy to compete with Google and Apple and in order to maintain the future viability of the Windows operating system. What we were not sure of was how Microsoft would achieve this goal while preserving backwards compatibility for all of our previous Windows applications in the office as well as in the home. The challenge at first blush seemed insurmountable: provide something completely new to the Windows world while preserving everything that went before.

At BUILD, Microsoft revealed that they have actually accomplished this goal by providing what is basically two side-by-side operating systems. They have also signaled that the primary challenge for application creators going forward will not be technical but rather design-focused. Microsoft, which in the past has tended to side-line user experience, now puts design front and center with “Windows 8.”

One of the two Win8 interfaces is a slightly souped up version of Windows 7 that looks familiar and runs just about anything I could think to try installing on it: Zune, Dropbox, iTunes, Kindle for PC, and even the software for the Kinect SDK. “Windows 8” ran each of them without complaint. The desktop shell works best with a mouse and keyboard, though it also supports and has been redesigned to support multitouch also.

The other is a Metro inspired immersive experience that works best using touch. Instead of an explorer based file system with icons, the Metro shell is designed around interactive tiles, familiar from Windows Phone 7, that launch discrete apps. The Metro shell revolves around a new Windows Store (the equivalent of the iPad’s App Store and WP7’s Marketplace) that allows consumers to download games and apps.

Dual Mode with Dock

Dual Mode with Dock

One could easily think of this as two solutions in one: a consumer platform designed for the tablet and a desktop platform designed for the PC. What is unusual about these side-by-side solutions is that, with the flick of a finger, the tablet user can bring up the desktop UI and the desktop user can bring up the Metro UI. The two operating systems are not something one configures through the control panel the way one might configure a background theme. Instead, both UIs are effectively always alive and always immediately accessible.

Microsoft generously provided each attendee with a new Samsung tablet installed with a pre-Beta build of “Windows 8” and accessorized with a wireless keyboard, a stylus and a dock. The dock is by far the most intriguing – and least discussed – piece of hardware provided as it offers an indication of how Microsoft envisions “Windows 8” being used in the future. A tablet may be inserted into the docking station with a monitor and mouse in an office setting, at which point the desktop UI can be brought up and the user has an experience for the most part indistinguishable from what he is currently used to. The tablet can then be undocked and switched to the Metro style with all the previously running applications still running.

The notion of two different operating systems goes all the way down to the development stack with two different platforms: one based on the traditional tools of Microsoft development such as Silverlight, WPF and WinForms targeting the desktop UI and another, completely new, development stack built around something called the Windows Runtime (WinRT) and programmable using C# and VB with a XAML-style UI language or C++ or Html with javascript compiling to a combination of native and dynamic code.

Initially the expectation is that the .NET tools of the past ten years will be used to write business, productivity and data-entry intensive applications while the new tools will be used for games, social apps and everything else one might expect to find on a smartphone or an iPad.

In a mixed-OS experience like the one described above using a dock, a more likely setup would be a full .NET style business app for the desktop with a lighter-weight Metro style version of the same app on the Metro UI. This allows users to quickly switch back and forth between a tablet and a desktop scenario using the same device. The test of this will likely come when Microsoft reveals its plans for Microsoft Office. We would expect Microsoft to provide both a classic and a Metro version of their Office suite. How well they implement this will in turn provide a roadmap for how other vendors will cater to the enterprise in their software solutions. In other words, will “Windows 8” for the enterprise have enterprise applications for the desktop only or for both the desktop and for the Metro UI.

There is a third possibility also. It may be possible to build full enterprise applications targeting Metro only. The WinRT platform combined with Microsoft’s Azure offering supports this.

The challenge in creating sophisticated apps for Metro is not primarily a technical challenge. It is primarily a User Experience challenge. Can we create multitouch enabled data grids? Can we come up with new navigation patterns to replace the standard enterprise application with hundreds of unique windows? Can we find ways to create great experiences that combine both multitouch and keyboard interaction?

Jensen Harris

Jensen Harris

While Microsoft has been tagged with a reputation for not understanding UX over the past decade, this has seemed to change. At BUILD, the speakers were all aware of the importance of UX while speakers like Jensen Harris demonstrated that Microsoft not only knew that UX problems were important but that they also had the chops to solve them. In this context, BUILD has been a watershed event. If Microsoft has tended to admire and promote smart programming in the past, after BUILD it will become more important to be savvy about design. The days when design could be dismissed as merely prettying up an application are over. After this week, design on Windows is front and center. This is good news for agencies like Razorfish which are strong in both design and technology. It will be a challenge for software consultancies that have only been paying lip service to UX until now as they attempt to establish themselves as Metro experts.

On the technology front, as mentioned above, Microsoft is supporting three platforms: one targeted at C++ developers, one at XAML developers (Silverlight and WPF), and one targeted at web developers. The tack of using web technologies for building native Metro apps for the “Windows 8” tablet currently makes the most sense. A common path for developing apps for multiple platforms like the iPad and iPhone, Android and Windows is to first create a web application that can run on all these platforms, then after looking at web analytics data and determining which platforms use the web app most, building native apps for each of the top platforms. In the case of the Metro UI, it will be easiest to port code from web apps to the native web development tools on Windows 8 rather than attempt to build a brand new project in either C++ or XAML. Again, this type of development is already familiar to digital agencies but likely to be a challenge for other organizations.

BUILD also quietly announced improvements and fixes to WPF in the new .NET 4.5 framework being released with “Windows 8.” This is exciting for the Razorfish Emerging Experiences group as WPF is our main development platform for Surface applications and multitouch experiences.

Search Results for Silverlight at BUILD

Search Results for Silverlight at BUILD

The story for Silverlight is a bit more ambiguous. Currently “Windows 8” offers two different versions of IE 10 – one for the desktop UI and one for the Metro UI. The Metro UI version does not support plugins. Consequently neither Flash nor Silverlight applications will run in Metro IE. This is a difficult position since it entails Silverlight does not work as a multi-platform solution even on “Windows 8,” i.e. it supports only one of the two Win8 platforms. Silverlight-out-of browser is still viable on the desktop UI. It must compete, however, with both WPF – which is more feature rich – and WinForms – which has a significantly larger developer base. It has been suggested that the main benefit of Silverlight as a desktop technology solution will be that, since it, like XAML for WinRT, is only a subset of WPF, this will make things easier when it comes time to port an application over to the Metro UI. In porting from either Silverlight or WPF, however, some rewriting will have to occur as XAML for WinRT actually introduces interesting new XAML features – such as markup for localization – currently missing from both Silverlight and WPF.

There are still several open questions remaining with regard to Windows 8. Two have already been mentioned:

1. Is the Metro UI for the enterprise or for consumers only?
2. What are Microsoft’s plans for Microsoft Office?

Waiting in line for Win8 Tablets

Waiting in line for Win8 Tablets

A third open question is What are Microsoft’s plans for Windows Phone? While the Samsung tablets given to attendees at BUILD are Intel-based, Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to provide an ARM-based version of “Windows 8.” The great advantage of an ARM architecture is that it allows “Windows 8” to be placed on a variety of hardware platforms including smart phones. Currently, however, Microsoft has dropped no hint that it plans to release “Windows 8” phones, however, and the concern would be that such an announcement would damage sales of Windows Phone 7.5, which will be released sometime in 2011. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to make sense to have completely different operating systems for the Microsoft tablet and Microsoft’s phone. Apple has benefited greatly by having one OS for both form factors and Microsoft strategists, no doubt, are well aware of this.


Thoughts on MIX 11: Looking Beyond the Web

Apr 20, 2011 by in Experience Design, News, Technology

This year, Razorfish sent several of our people to MIX 11, the annual Microsoft sponsored conference in Las Vegas for developers and designers.

So much happened during our week at MIX  that it is difficult to summarize it all thematically.   There were announcements and sessions on several major topics: IE9, HTML5, ASP.NET MVC 3, Silverlight 5, Windows Phone Mango release, and the Kinect SDK. In addition, there were also appearances from MS Surface v2, Windows Azure, oData and Sharepoint as well as a remarkable set of UX presentations.

Mix11 Keynote Sketch

The word on everyone’s lips seemed to be fragmentation, whether in reference to the expected HTML5 compatibility issues between future browsers (which the emphasis on the IE9 “native” browser experience only exacerbated) or to the greater array of Microsoft development technologies fighting for developers’ attentions.

What the four Razorfish attendees at MIX saw, on the contrary, were patterns of evolution.  The much ballyhooed struggles between the Windows Team and the Development Team inside Microsoft for the future of HTML5 and Silverlight indicate to us that Microsoft can still respond to a rapidly changing worldwide technology ecosystem.  When a product is struggling in the niche it was doing fine in a year ago, it can be refitted to survive in a new niche. Such is the case with Silverlight, originally intended as a Flash-killer.  Silverlight developers never truly adopted the original Flash-killer strategy and instead used Silverlight to develop more sophisticated and interesting line-of-business applications.  The problem is that LOB applications do not really belong on the web.  They belong behind firewalls.  The lack of casual games written in Silverlight likely affected the ability of Silverlight to force downloads and gain browser share.  So instead, the strengths of Silverlight are being moved to the desktop as well as specialized platforms such as Windows Phone, the XBOX (?), and possibly Windows vNext.

WPF, which was once the pre-eminent desktop development platform, is in turn becoming a specialized tool for NUI development for multi-touch, Surface and Kinect.  The announcement of the Kinect SDK itself demonstrates Microsoft’s continuing ability to innovate and surprise.  It is, in the best sense of the term, a fortuitous mutation.

This all leaves HTML5 as the preferred technology for the web.  We of course see the early signs of browser compatibility issues. At the same time, though, we have each been through this before and survived. The extra gyrations developers will have to go through will, in the end, provide the illusion consumers desire – that the same application can run similarly on any operating system and any device.  As one MIX speaker put it, “The technology you use impresses no one.  The experience you create with it is everything.”

Windows Phone 7

Speaking of devices, we are excited to see that the WP7 team is not only going for parity with other smart phones but is firing warning shots across their bows with the much touted Mango release.  Features we’re used to like multitasking are being expanded beyond current implementations with updating live tiles and “Live Agents” which allow for more full-featured multitasking.

There was naturally some complaining about the placement of various keynotes and sessions.  With the multiple announcements and cross-blocking sessions, isn’t there a danger that individual messages will get drowned out in the general cacophony?  We find that the panoply of conflicting viewpoints is one of the chief charms of MIX. Microsoft is not Apple.  To borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s famous title, Apple is the hedgehog that does one thing well; Microsoft is the fox that explores all avenues and experiences.  The great strength of Microsoft is its ability to challenge developers and create new harmonies out of these encounters. Should MIX ever be split up into different web, Silverlight, Windows Phone and UX conferences, we would all be poorer for it since all we would ever get would be our own opinions reflected back on ourselves – an echo chamber effect that will only serve to make us all deaf.

The overall quality of all sessions and boot camps were extremely high this year.  In the past, we have been happy with a 60% success rate on talks.  This year roughly 85% of the talks rang our internal bells. Certain sessions deserve a special shout out, however.

While all the UX lightning talks were extraordinary,  August de los Reyes’s 21st Century Design (10’ 45”) talk took it to a different level.  In the live session, the slide deck itself was the star with the brilliant August narrating it much as Peter Jones was the voice of the book in the old Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series.

Despite its inauspicious title, Ivan Tashev’s talk Audio for Kinect revealed what a truly remarkable device the Kinect really is. We honestly didn’t understand half of the technical stuff and we became queasy when formulas started flying across the screen. What we learned, though, was that only a fragment of the Kinect’s full audio capability is currently being used.  Dr. Tashev demonstrated the ability of the Kinect’s audio algorithms to pick out two separate speakers, one reading Chinese and the other reading Korean, and separate them into different channels.  All of this cool functionality will, moreover, be handed over to developers when the Kinect SDK beta is released at the end of spring.

Finally, we cannot say enough good things about Luis Cabrera and his willingness to demonstrate the Surface 2 at work in A Whole NUI World. Razorfish, of course, has a special affinity for anything Surface. What was outstanding in this presentation was not only the beauty and power of the new Surface devices but also the amount of thought that has gone into the tooling. Kudos to the Surface team, they’re reaching for a goal that is more than just a new technology but a new way for people to interact with computers and each other.

By the end of MIX, we were all quite exhausted mentally and physically. It may take us a full year – until the next MIX – to finish ingesting everything that we learned and experienced at MIX11.

So long, Microsoft, and thanks for all the Kinects.