PopTech’s Ambitious iPad App Works Best When It Stays Simple

The vaunted innovation conference shot for the moon with this collection of interactive visualizations, but its video clips make it worth the download.

Prestigious innovation conferences are either invitation-only or too damned expensive for a guy with a new baby to spring for. So when I saw that PopTech had released an iPad app to accompany its latest conference in Camden, Maine (which wrapped up last Friday), I licked my chops at the chance to be there without actually being there. It includes an impressive-sounding interactive visualization created in collaboration with the New York Times Company Research & Development Lab, which connects significant eras in your personal life with news events from the newspaper’s digital archives–like Facebook’s Timeline feature, but not as navel-gazing.


The PopTech app’s interaction design is clean and inviting, with a pleasing frisson of “wish you were here!” techno-enviability. The timeline visualization made an especially good first impression, priming me to expect an explosion of personalized news history with just a few taps. But the sheen started rubbing off quickly. The personalization process felt visually pinched and awkwardly constrained. A thin color-coded timeline offers sliders to set date ranges for “childhood,” “early adulthood,” “high school,” and so forth, but only displays dates in five-year increments, so roughly estimating “1992” (the year I started high school) feels unsatisfyingly vague. A world map (which lets you assign physical places to your life-stages) has the same problem: I didn’t leave the U.S. until I was 21, so distinguishing between Chicago and Ithaca, NY was basically pointless, since the dots were each the size of New Jersey and were mere pixels apart on the map. I kept wanting to pinch into it to magnify the view. From there, the timeline only got more confusing, spraying a constellation of headline-keywords, occasionally misspelled, across the screen and asking me to link them to each other–which connected them with white lines but didn’t generate any meaningful patterns or personalization I could discern.

The other two features offer up sets of handsomely designed infographics about global business trends, but with little meaningful interactivity. A display of “World Business Hubs” shows a tiny world map with even tinier icons representing different business sectors that grow and shrink when you tap buttons representing future dates. But the visual differences between the icons are too subtle, and comparing the differences temporally (beyond perceiving a slight pulse of motion) is impossible.

PopTech’s app really gets immersive when it skips the bells and whistles and, in its final section, simply offers up a wide selection of beautifully shot video clips of invited speakers. They’re displayed (again) on a world map, but here its relative visual detail-lessness still adds value in an exploratory sense (“hm, what does this person from Morocco have to say?”). Watching these videos, full of innovative thinking and charismatic characters, I finally felt connected to PopTech: the iPad makes “snacking” on a dozen short-form videos much more comfortable than watching on the web. Fussy interactives and skin-deep infographics still can’t beat a simple, intuitive, compelling personal media experience. Making me really “wish I were there” at PopTech, it turns out, doesn’t take much more than that.

[Read more about PopTech’s iPad app]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.