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Why Microsoft's Vision Of The Future Is Dead On Arrival

A viral clip produced by Microsoft is—like almost every video on this subject—amazingly polished. It's also inane and completely lifeless.

This just in: In the future, everything will be lushly luxurious, gleamingly clean, and digitally magical. Yup, it’s another corporate "the future of . . ." video, this time courtesy of Microsoft Office. This dazzlingly mounted production will spin your head with its vision of "the future of productivity"—the most salient feature of which is that, apparently, nobody uses Microsoft Office anymore. Sounds like a dream:

Sorry if that’s harsh, but I’m with John Gruber: These spit-polished masterpieces of magical thinking are the tech-elite version of LOLcat videos. They make you feel warm and fuzzy for a minute or two and…that’s about it. As Gruber scathingly puts it, "We’ve seen Minority Report already. Imagine if [Microsoft] instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today."

I’m going to get a bit more meta: I’m actually fine with corporations pouring scads of money into producing futurist concept videos (sidebar: I’m available!), but would it be so hard to create one that felt the least bit authentic? The interfaces of a decade from now are going to be part of a world that looks a lot like the one we live in now. There will still be messy kitchens, non-angelic children, litter in public places, and jobs that don’t involve giving glamorous presentations to ambiguously ethnic business partners. Our computers will still be filled with buggy software and ugly webpages, and your computer and mine aren’t likely to share some magical, universal gestural language. (BTW Microsoft: You, more than anyone else, created these problems!)

This is the world that 99% of the users of Microsoft Office actually inhabit now, and it won’t be any different in a decade. There’s nothing wrong with aspirational fantasies, but the too-perfect world that Microsoft’s film envisions looks like a photorealistic version of Second Life: everyone moves like a mannequin and is just as dead behind the eyes.

What "future of" tech/design videos need is a little less Minority Report and a little more Alien. Director Ridley Scott famously told his production designers to make Alien's spaceship and costumes look roughed-up, slightly messy, and above all, lived in. Otherwise, it just isn’t believable enough to see yourself in—which is a design problem that both horror movies and corporate promos need to solve. Microsoft’s film is probably going viral as we speak, but imagine how much more reach it would have if it dared to depict a guy stuck in a meeting that sucked, or using his smartphone in an airport that was full of noisy assholes and long lines, or searching his touchscreen-enabled smart refrigerator for a quick meal because his kids are bouncing off the walls and he’s bone-tired from a long day at work?

Futuristic interfaces are supposed to solve problems and make life easier. What good are they—besides being eye candy—if the future around them is picture-perfect already? The Microsoft video takes that conceit of perfection and carries it so far that the concepts begin to look ridiculous: You can pick out all kinds of clever touches, such as the way the images on a computer screen can be dragged off screen to become holograms—and then can be controlled with gestures. But by that point, we’re way off in future land, where none of these clever touches feel rooted in life. They don’t address problems we understand. Take as a counterexample, this video by Berg London. It’s full of interesting experimental interfaces, but the world around it is…ours:

It includes things like imperfect lighting, dog-eared magazines, and chipped coffee mugs. It’s inhabited by people, not mute wax figures. It somehow feels more like the future, simply because it’s more recognizably connected to the present. More importantly, the concepts solve problems we actually have today, and the situations are ones that we now live with. That’s the future Microsoft Office is going to be a part of; that’s the future we should, and will, be designing for. What’s so wrong about acknowledging that?

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  • Mikhael Wijaya

    A very interesting point of view and step towards the future and the society. I think it'll be amazing if it were to be that now! But then again, its just fiction now. Hopefully in time, I'll be able to see these in action while I live. Otherwise, I hope these projects get finished before the world ends!

  • Damien Fellowes

    So really, all you are not happy about is that Microsoft do not share your vision of how the future should look like?
    Are actually addressing the technology (be it Fact or Fiction) that is represented or is this simply a critism on the way it has been filmed because IMDB have a load of movies awaitig your input.

  • Luis

    I think that ultimately the point for this article is the power of story telling. While I really gravitate towards the big bold colors and typography in the Microsoft ad I ultimately connect better with the latter video. I get the polished look, but I don't connect with it because I don't relate with the characters.

  • Vsa

    It Strikes me that you're much concern on how the video is made that the real essence of the video. that's what filmmakers are,  if something good film comes up:

    1. criticize the flaws.
    2. point out some "much better" idea.
    3. viola! innocent readers thinks you're much better.

    if something exceeded you expectation, you down-leveled it your expectation.
    and  if not, you step it up to yours.

  • Rodrigo De Vasconcellos Rodrig

    I imagine what people in Da Vinci's time (just to cite one) said about all those crazy drawings and thoughts he had in that old times he lived in. Probably the same you wrote in this article.

    If you think *everybody* that will see that video will think that all those good-looking things will be avaiable next X-Mas, I think *you* have the misunderstanding problem.

    I really hope that, one day, all that things come true. I hope my grandson (I'm 36 right now, my daugther is 11 months old) can use just a bit of what is shown there, may it be Microsoft's, Google's or TPSystems' (well... my software starter company... ;-)). An innocent dream? Maybe.

    But real life's just too boring not to keep dreaming till I (still) can.

    Cheers from Brazil,

  • Speed III

    I think you're grossly missing the point here. I completely agree that these corporations (Microsoft) should evenly weigh futuristic depictions of technology with supporting their current suite of product today. However, don't forget this is a *business*. These "viral" videos job is not to depict the future of technology, but rather a marketing campaign that Microsoft is thinking further out than today and is (my god do I have to say it), "innovating". Microsoft is not Facebook, where updates and features are made and released real-time to fulfill a violent need for daily consumption. 

    How can you ask anyone to depict the world in it's less than perfect state? We have to design for optimal and work backwards. I'll bet you're the guy that watches Lord of the Rings trilogy and has complaints about the story, the visual FX, or how it didn't match the book? Yeah, it'd be kind of cheeky to see a concept video with messy kitchens and garbage rolling past, something gritty, but at the end of the day, that's not Microsoft's brand. This video isn't supposed to appeal to you or I, but rather to a large population of businesses and entities that have money to spend on a macro-level. Sure we can see through this, but that doesn't mean it's not subconsciously creating some wonder and imagination. Quit crapping on everything thats good.

    And Microsoft, start spending a little more energy on making the products, you have in the market, more appealing, more usable, more stable, and more fun.

  • Susan Gosselin

    Yeah, I hate Microsoft as much as you do.  And you make a good point. However, companies have been doing these kind of "future of" presentations since time immemorial.  They have always managed to demonstrate how the products work, but their predictions for the implications of them have been woefully insufficient.  Take for instance, a video from the 1960s I saw from GE that predicted a rudimentary microwave and a lot of the conveniences we have today in our homes.  It was quite hilarious watching the nuclear family in this video.  The pipe smoking dad home at 5:30 sharp to enjoy his day with his perfect son with his perfect part and spit shined clothes.  His homemaker wife glided through the day with perfect hair, with tons of leisure time since the machines did all their work for her.  And now she could fix any member of the family whatever they wanted in seconds.  Here's your steak, Dad.  Here's your hot dog, Billy.  And I'll have a nice healthy salad.  What they DIDN'T predict is that most moms would NEED to work, microwave dinners suck, kids would be pushed to achieve more in school, gas prices would go up to get to those suburbs, and the whole family would be overscheduled because they were expected to be more productive.

    But give those poor design challenged goobs at Microsoft a break. They are showing it in those kind of environments to make the technology stand out and not be cluttered by side plots.  It's also a branding thing to make them look more slick.  And, I would argue, a way of creating conversation around some of the ideas their developing, weeding out the good from the bad based on public sentiment. What I'm interested in is the technology, and I think they've done a good job of demoing it.  If you pay any attention to futurists like Edward Kurzweil, or even just follow the exponential laws of technology advancement, we'll have technology like this and even more in 10-20 years or less. I saw your second video a couple years ago.  Yes, it's realistic, but I don't think the tech in it looks particularly useful.  I wouldn't want any of the products they showed.  The window at the end is pretty cute, though.  Would have been nice if it had been an actual ad or something we might see in real life.

    Thanks for posting the video.  And for writing an entertaining post!

  • Anon

    All great observations except,
    "(BTW Microsoft: You, more than anyone else, created these problems!)"

  • Jae

    Microsoft is primarily a marketing company, but one that does most of its marketing research using its own employees, who work in an incredibly pretentious la la land.  There is virtually nothing (NOTHING) grounded, authentic, creative, kind, or good about Microsoft.  Yes, I've seen it from the inside.  No, their video doesn't surprise me.  And the contrast with the Berg London video is as sharp as can be.  The Berg London video -- well, that one is "sweet"!

  • MikeJake

    Tech people seem to think everything they do is magical and transformative, yet the "hot" things end up being minor increases in the functionality of productivity software, pointless apps, Java games, mindless social networking, and businesses based on coupon deals.

    Settle down, tech people. 

  • Jneitz

    I love the article, John. What I just can't wrap my head around is why every major tech company seems to think this wh0le "Let's be 100% depedent on our smart phones/touchscreen computers" idea. It seems no one has got it right yet. It's like we're making our lives harder in order to have some device make them "easier". I just don't get it.

  • bravelittlememe

    Critiquing a clearly aspirational video for lacking the grit of the real world is ridiculous. It would be like critiquing  '2001: A Space Odyssey' for having too much white furniture.

    It's a stylistic choice, possibly inspired by the brand values of MS's minimalist Metro interfaces. If Apple had done this, no one would bat an eyelid. In my humble opinion, the author has way too much time on his hands.

  • JohnDoey

    I don’t have a problem with the Microsoft video because it is aspirational, or because it lacks the right style. I have a problem with the Microsoft video because of its content. What they aspire to be is Apple, as usual. This video is like a chart where you take the current Apple product lineup and project out 10 years with a ruler, assuming the products stay the same but gain even richer features.

    Apple did an aspirational video in 1997 called “Think Different.” The 1997 Apple was in bad shape, nothing to brag about at the current time, but in Think Different they aspired to be a better Apple, not some other company. It ends with a child, like saying: we’re starting over. It inspires the viewer to build either an Apple product or build something else with an Apple product. It says: we don’t know the future, but we believe in disrespecting the status quo and pushing the human race forward, so you can expect us to be in the thick of things in the future, whatever it is.

    Microsoft’s video says: we not only copy Apple products, we aspire to copy more Apple products in the future.

    What vision!

  • Gc13psj

    I'm sorry about spelling mistakes, etc. I am Dyslexic and for some reason my iPad wouldn't let me view the whole of what I had written, so I had difficulty editing it to make sense. Which it probably doesn't haha

  • Gc13psj

    I really think you are focusing on the wrong parts of this video, and at the exact parts that microsoft wants you to look at. The technology and UI interfaces are what it is truly about, but it is hidden from many because of how beautiful the world looks. This is a clever ploy that all, including the much beloved Apple for employ to make us think "wow, maybe my life will be better in the future, with this new product or software (view the Siri adverts). The UIs revealed is are absolutely the direction Microsoft is heading in, and the Mertro UI will overtake the Aero UI in windows 9, etc.
    A large amount of the technology they showed is also in it's early stages at this very moment, and will probably be unveiled to the mainstream market far before when is predicted in the video.
    Unfortunately, Microsoft knows that many people will gloss over this and will get sucked in to thinking the thinking that these technologies will make the world gradually more perfect, and make your world beautiful. I think you are absolutely correct about how it is wrong to show the future in this way, although if you look at Microsoft's vision of the future from 10 years in the past, modern day looks ridiculously better now, and this is almost entirely because of the technologies created and developed in that time, such as better cameras and software to edit the video on. Fashion and culture has also moved forward, with product design looking increasingly futuristic (look at Apple again). So, though you may be critical of how Microsoft has chosen to depict the future, cut them some slack, every company, film studio and 6 year old depicts the future like this. Microsoft is merely a software company that is trying to inspire its self to create a sleeker UI to try and force the future to be this beautiful, as well as make people feel fuzzy and warm about the company.

  • Gib Wallis

    This video you liked was very low budget looking.

    And news on coupons? That's a future problem that can be solved?

    Haven't they ever seen the tacky coupons printed on the backs of your receipts at the grocery store?

    Blade Runner's future and Minority Report's future are actually both similar to the video you liked. Eye spam.