Co.Design

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?