Multiplayer docs, webcam fashion, noisy icons: three ideas

19.50, Friday 20 Nov 2020

Let’s say I wake up one morning and I’m magically in charge of Android, iOS, or Mac OS. What do I do? Here are three ideas aimed at making operating systems more social.

It matters what goes in operating systems. Almost 20 years ago, many of us were banging the drum for location-aware computing. It’s hard to imagine now that computers (by which I include phones) didn’t know where they were. But put location in the OS, and you enable everything from turn-by-turn directions, to advertising, to takeaways, to Tinder.

ASIDE: If you’re into the history, Know Your Place (July 2017, The Fibreculture Journal) is an examination of the visionary and influential headmap manifesto for “locative media” (as it was called) by Ben Russell from 1999.

Another example:

Fonts on the original Macintosh, 1984, which was early in using fonts with characters of different widths, often referred to as proportional fonts. (Previously most computers were more like typewriters.) The story goes that Steve Jobs went to a calligraphy class at college, and ended up caring a ton about typography. And so we ended up with desktop publishing and the democratisation of design!

Laptops and smartphones never escaped their PC history. They’re still personal computers, all our socialising and collaborating channeled through individual apps like email and Facebook. To be natively social, we need social capabilities at the OS level.

So, let me join the dots on a few recent blog posts, and briefly lay out some starting points…

1. Multiplayer everything

Google Docs is amazing (and Sheets, and Slides). Like, of course in docs you should be able to

  • see people’s cursors (where their attention is)
  • comment (start a side conversation, clarify, make requests)
  • edit together (have the same privileges as the document “owner”).

After all, this is exactly what you’d in a meeting room with a whiteboard, or in a cafe scribbling on a napkin.

Then you get the unintended uses of those capabilities like spreadsheet parties, as previously discussed.

Figma, the online design tool, has has multiplayer mode since 2016. A designer can show their work to viewers, all their cursors swarming round. More unintended uses: Tom Critchlow has been using Figma for salons.

And then there’s the new generation of collaboration apps such as MakeSpace with its video selfie cursors and shared canvas.

I find it insane that Google never turned Google Docs into a framework for all web apps.

Live text editing, multiplayer cursors, comments and chat: these are powerful primitives. Why doesn’t every text editor on the web, every sketching app, and every music maker include this? Google could have enabled that.

It’s not too late.

If I were Apple, or Google with Android, I’d bake this into the OS. It should be a native feature of the operating system, just like menu, or the file save dialog box.

Every application window should be thought of as a room. Tap on a window, open the door, and see cursors swarm, text get edited, and comments stream in. (Different cursors for different windows, naturally.)

And one of those team members? An artificial intelligence assistant. I talked yesterday about how the ideal interface to AIs is the team

2. Presentation of self

Erving Goffman, sociologist, his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life:

when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance, and manner.

Like… of course?

Goffman focuses on politeness: all participants in social interactions are engaged in practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others.

And costume: the dress and look of the performer.

Agency in self-presentation is about as close as you can get to a human fundamental. Sure enough, there are filters in individual apps. Yet there’s barely any attention given, at the OS level, to this kind of “dressing up,” to costume.

I wrote in October about virtual fashion: How about skin tight t-shirts with tracking markers, especially made for rendering synthetic shirts with physics-model fabric for wearing on Zoom?

And there are glimpses of apps that play in this domain. Recently I saw xpression camera on Product Hunt. It intercepts your webcam and lets you change your appearance on any call. Like, you give it an image of a person, and then it deepfakes your face into the image. Check out the second photo on that Product Hunt page: Take a photo of yourself in a suit, so you can attend Zoom meetings in your pyjamas.

The ability to not brush my hair for video calls is ABSOLUTELY a worthy operating system-level feature.

Is this trivial? I imagine people said the Mac’s focus on typography was a triviality when it launched in the 80s. But creative expression is what humans are all about, and nice fonts (and ugly fonts…) tap directly into that.

Here’s another: the video/podcast-editing tool Descript. Check out their launch video on YouTube. At 1 minute 50, you’ll see the ability to scrub every uh and um from your voice, automatically.

This is no different from spellcheck. We have spellcheck because it’s important to be professional. But computers (I include phones in this) are subject to the tyranny of work. What about hanging out with my friends? I want to sound cool and look silly, or whatever.

So for my second act, I’d bake deepfakes, dressing up, and yes, an app store for virtual fashion right into the OS. Give presentation-of-self features an absolute ton of attention.

3. Peripheral vision

Notifications are a system-level feature. Good.

But notifications are a blunt instrument.

  • A red dot that shows the number of times my name has been mentioned… but by whom? And over what time period? And is there a crowd of people still there?
  • A pop-up that gives me detail of a message, or a question about an edit… but what if I’m focusing and have notifications turned off, or I need time to think?

Long-time listeners will know of my interest in social peripheral vision, the idea that you should be able to sense, as if from the corner of your eye, the busyness of a Slack channel, or the fact that a friend is slowly and quietly posting gorgeous photos somewhere.

And from that gentle, non-urgent awareness, you can build up (or not) to full focus.

But how should it work? One thought…

There’s an idea buried in my post about video calling interop from a few weeks back:

The icons on my home screen should appear “noisy” somehow if they’re currently full of my friends. Getting notifications only when I’m direct-mentioned is such a crude mechanism: I want to know where the action is!

Noisy icons. What if each icon gave off ripples? But the ripples would be static. If they did animate, it would be very slow.

From a visual scan of your home screen, you’d see which apps were busy and which were quiet. Bigger ripples if more of your friends are active; bigger ripples if your name is mentioned. Each app could have its own volume control.

Imagine seeing ripples around the Google Docs app as if there were some deep, distant activity. Open it… and there’s a particular document humming with comments. You listen at the door, you can tell who’s active, and the frequency of the interactions, but not what they’re saying precisely… a ping as your name is mentioned (the notification of which wouldn’t have bubbled all the way up to your home screen as it’s not important enough, but since you’re here) - so you enter and join your colleagues.

Enough already

It’s not going to happen, nobody’s going to give me the keys to designing the OS.

But I’d love to see social computing given the attention that it deserves. As you can tell, I’m frustrated that OS designers and engineers haven’t gone further down this path already.

Just as, in the days of locative media, in 1999 before smartphones and before consumer GPS, we could only guess at what would happen with location-based computings, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface with social, and I want to see what apps and services would be newly-enabled and newly-imagined by system-level Lego bricks like these.

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