After eight years at Sony and five years spent elevating Disney Research to one of the premier interaction design labs in the world—Ivan Poupyrev—a Fast Company Most Creative Person 2013—is leaving for Motorola Mobility (owned by Google) where he’ll help develop new products to compete with dominant hardware companies like Apple and Samsung. In other words, Motorola is about to become a UX juggernaut.
Poupyrev is known for his cutting edge research for a post-screen world, an analog-controlled digital utopia in which dumb objects, from tables to house plants, could be easily retrofitted to recognize us, complete with Internet-friendly multitouch and tactile feedback. Meanwhile, Motorola Mobility has never quite come to terms with its own skin in the iPhone era. After their hugely successful, impossibly slim RAZR flip phone, poor management milked the RAZR brand dry rather than continuing the R&D that made Motorola a global tour de force. But Motorola retooled with the Droid—their ingenious rebranding of Google's then-esoteric Android operating system. With Droid, Motorola Mobility had its new identity—just in time to be purchased by Google and start the entire "Who is Motorola?" conversation all over again.
"Motorola used to be this iconic American company—it still is. It was such a massive influence in the world of electronics. Motorola invented the cellphone. The first Apples ran on Motorola chips, and their chips were instrumental in the Apollo program," Poupyrev tells Co.Design. "Now it’s going through a transition, and being part of this transition is exciting for me. In a small way, I can help shape the future of the company."
Poupyrev will work in the highly secretive Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) division. ATAP is run by the former head of DARPA, Regina Dugan. The division's first product was Motorola's first product under Google, the landmark (but retail disappointment) Moto X, a colorful, user-customizable smartphone, which debuted impressive interaction technologies that could authenticate your identity without passwords.
Now, with Poupyrev involved, it’s easy to imagine Motorola/Google not just one-upping Apple’s iPhone, but creating a new wave of products that redefine the way we interact with everything from our gadgets to the entire smart infrastructure of our analog world.
Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at the projects Poupyrev led along with a slew of post docs in the past few years at Disney Research—and pay attention to how many of those young researchers have either been swallowed up by the tech industry’s power players or ended up at another premier interaction research facility, MIT Media Lab.
- Touché turned everyday materials, including water, into multitouch surfaces. It was related to research that allowed touch screens to identity multiple users like magic. Where the designers are now:
-Chris Harrison is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University
-Jonas Loh co-founded Studio Nand
-Munehiko Sato is a post doc at MIT Media Lab.
- Botanicus Interacticus continued Touché by imagining plants as touch-sensitive, interactive devices. Where the designers are now:
- Philipp Schoessler is master's candidate at MIT Media Lab
- REVEL added haptic feedback to dumb objects, like ordinary teapots. Its technology was also used in "Teslatouch" touch screens, and a project that allowed touch to become audible sound. Where the designers are now:
- Olivier Bau is now part of the Research Lab at Samsung
- Cheng Xu joined Yahoo Research Lab
- AIREAL puffed haptic feedback into the air, allowing you to touch interfaces like Microsoft Kinect. Where the designers are now:
- Raj Sodhi will soon be graduating with a PhD from University of Illinois.
- Alex Rothera accepted for the residency at Fabrica in Italy
- Surround Haptics imagined video games and movies that could shiver down your spine. Where the designers are now:
- Chris Ioffreda is a designer at Pebble
- Ali Israr Ali Israr became a full-time Disney researcher
- Jan Stec is a character designer at Activision
- Printed Optics developed a 3-D printing tech that could embed an object with glowing fiber optics, essentially adding a screen to any dumb object. Where the designers are now:
- Karl D.D. Willis is now at Autodesk
- Eric Brockmeyer is now a designer at Disney
For Poupyrev, who fielded several offers besides Motorola, it’s a strange and welcome phenomenon to see interaction designers as such hot commodities in an industry that’s wrestling with completely new fields for technology of an unprecedented scale, like wearables and the Internet of Things.
Before Disney Research, Poupyrev worked at Sony, where he developed a touch screen with haptic feedback (meaning you could feel the buttons), among other research projects. Sony had no idea what to do with it as Poupyrev’s team attempted to rally interest across departments within the company. Eventually, Sony shoved the technology into a few remotes, releasing the first commercial product in the world to feature a tactile touch screen. Apple would figure out a better use for touch screens five years later when they released the iPhone.
"When I was working at Sony, there was a huge push against digital interactions. People wanted buttons," Poupyrev told me months ago in an interview for Fast Company. "Now, everyone understands that digital is the way. But when the digital revolution ends, that’s when the real world begins."
In the half decade after Poupyrev’s research at Sony, he’s developed a particular fondness for organic interfaces that exist within our real world rather than behind glass screens. Piecing together his research, you can get the whiff of a larger vision, a world in which every object—be it made by man or nature—can recognize our touch and respond, not through traditional graphical user interface, but through a rich combination of senses, our hands, our ears, and our eyes working in harmony.
"The world is almost split into two parts, before and after iPhone," Poupyrev tells me on Monday. "Even though we’ve been working on crazy interaction for a long time, it wasn’t until very recently that the consumer market was ready for it. Today, it’s crazy to me how quickly people get used to stuff. ‘Yeah whatever, touch screen, high-speed data downloads, YouTube.’ Five years ago, we didn’t have that at all!"
Indeed, with the success of interaction-heavy products like the iPhone, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Kinect, the world has finally caught up to visionaries like Poupyrev. We now have a technological infrastructure full of cheaper sensors, processors, and low-power data transmission that can make big ideas scale across the consumer electronics market.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see if Motorola is able to turn Poupyrev’s big ideas into a new wave of must-have post-iPhone products. He’s optimistic, telling us that given ATAP’s fast moving production schedule, we should see his work manifest into new devices within the year.