Microsoft’s Dystopian Hellscape, part 1

There’s a meme going around to critique the latest concept video out of Microsoft telling us all how we’re going to live in the future. Gruber points out that, like the 1987 Apple Knowledge Navigator video, this is a corporate exercise in vaporware that says nothing about what the company is developing or any real products. Other critiques mention that the haptic interfaces of the future are clearly fictional, and on top of that, your wife is probably sleeping around.

I’ll point out one other major difference between the Apple Navigator demo and the Microsoft 2011 version: Apple showed me a future that I wanted to live in. (With many flaws, which I’ll come back to in another post.) I was so confused by what this video was depicting that I downloaded the HD version to try to figure out what kind of world Microsoft wants us to live in. We’re supposed to believe that this is a cool vision of the future where computers make our lives easier. It’s not. It’s a dystopian hellscape of despair.

The Culture: Work Schedule

Let’s start with the work culture we’ll be experiencing in the Brave New World of 2021. Ayla, our hero, has just arrived in Johannesburg from Sydney on a Sunday afternoon. She’s arriving at night and we learn later that she only had a 9-hour incoming flight; check Kayak and, hey, turns out she sacrificed her entire weekend for this trip. It’s at least a 24-hour flight, and she had to leave as early as Saturday morning or Friday night. (The only alternative: Qantas flies airplanes that are 44% faster in ten years, and completely changes its arrivals schedule.)

Despite this hellacious trip, Ayla immediately gets down to work in the cab. She’s got “new” messages that arrived in the last few hours, so despite the holographic speeds her Australian data plan achieves while roaming in Africa, her plane didn’t have an Internet connection. Meanwhile, her daughter was awake at 5 AM in Sydney to wish her a safe flight.

It’s 10:34 PM in Jo’burg and Ayla has already reviewed five tasks in the cab. Her colleagues in Hong Kong also work weekends. One sent her an email while she was in the air this afternoon, the other emailed her at 3:30 AM his time. Ayla lets the first guy know that she’ll get to his work first thing, and sets a reminder… which will take place 3 hours after the meeting he needs it for. Apparently futuristic Microsoft devices have trouble with time zones. This might also be why the email was dated Sunday 4/21/2021, which can’t happen.

Something odd happens in the cab; she’s only 15 minutes away from the hotel when her meeting is pointed out, but 15 minutes later the cab says she’s at the hotel when clearly she’s not much further down the same road. The bellhop’s watch says it’s noon in Australia, making it around 4 AM before she gets to her room.

We get to see how technology organizes the work of the bellhop assistant. According to his schedule, he has 15 minutes to stand around looking impeccably tailored, after which eight people (one of whom is handicapped) will need his services in the space of six minutes. That’s some fine AI agenting he’s got there.

Unfortunately, Ayla has set a 7:30 alarm in order to blow that Hong Kong deadline by only three hours, so it’s a good thing she’s a high-powered executive who can fly for 24 hours and then get only 2 hours of sleep. Indeed, by 7:36 AM she’s fully dressed and the bed has not been slept in. Her meeting is scheduled in 84 minutes and is apparently either a 15-minute or a 6-hour drive across town. Oddly, none of her information appliances mention travel time or say anything about it on her schedule. So she has plenty of time to jump into a meeting with colleagues in Hong Kong and the US (local time: 9 PM – 12 AM Sunday night) and to pick out a bake sale goodie for her daughter.

So in the grand Microsoft future, all of us work 24/7 and pretty much conduct our social lives through our devices. Good thing Ayla is able to mother her child over the live video link. It’s less clear how Microsoft expects us to handle the constant sleep deprivation.

The Culture: Health and Well-Being

When Ayla arrives at the airport curbside, there’s almost no one else there, which pretty much never happens at an international airport. Her flights are on Qantas, so we know that she doesn’t have a private jet. Ergo, we must assume that her flight was nearly empty, maybe a result of the still-ongoing global depression. Or perhaps we can take the hint that her daughter wrote her at 5 AM to wish her a safe flight on what is currently one of the safest airlines on Earth. Is terrorism that much of a concern in the Microsoft future, to keep a child awake all night? Perhaps this also explains why there was no Internet connection on the plane; lingering radioactive fallout may play havoc with the signal, or perhaps even a major airline can’t afford the amenity when the plane is flying nearly empty.

Ayla is clearly a top executive, as indicated by her executive suite. But at the other end of the economic scale, we see that plenty of jobs have been made available at the entry level, where the only black man who is featured in the video has the grand title of Bellhop Assistant. The only black man in a video set in Johannesburg. Shine on, you crazy Microsoft diamond.

But Ayla has concerns: at the end of the day, there’s a large “1600” displayed on the health meter on her phone, next to her yoga log. Was that her caloric intake today? Her caloric target? Either starvation is common enough that wealthy women don’t get that much more to eat, or this already thin woman with a very active schedule is on a diet.

On the bright side, the husband of this important executive appears to be 10-15 years older than she is, and is at home raiding the fridge on a Monday afternoon while a tablet parents his kid, so it’s nice to know that the future will continue to benefit me with a gender gap in my favor.

The Devices

The whole point of this video is supposed to be its depiction of the future. Meaning that these devices should have a basis in a reality that somewhat intersects our own. Instead, what we’re shown is frequently so batshit crazy that it ranges from the merely poorly-designed to the physically impossible.

All of the flatscreens have what appear to be a window view on a 2-dimensional infinite plane that scrolls in any direction. Scrolling is somewhat constrained on the handheld professional devices, but have 360-degree zooming and scrolling on the tablets, as depicted by the above workspace that is deemed appropriate for a 11-year-old child.

These flatscreens have holographic output that extend past the boundaries of the display in what appears to be at least a hemispherical radius of several inches. Holographic input is also accepted at any angle to the device and at an equal radius. Devices are able to track eyelines of people glancing in the direction of the device in order to dynamically change information displays (the bellhop’s card) or determine when one surface is subjectively “behind” another (moving items from the tablet to the large desktop display). Despite three-dimensional input and output, navigation is always two-dimensional, as is data input.

So in other words: we’re discussing devices that constantly track all humans in the area and monitor all movement, sounds, and gestures in order to determine when these actions may be a command. These devices instantly network to each other and to any new devices in the area when they are detected. This is somehow deemed to be a good thing, in a world where we were forced to invent a word for butt-dialing.

Consider what needs to happen for this clip where the bellhop assistant takes a card out of his pocket, uses the dual touchscreen, then uses the dual transparent display. The card needs eye tracking to determine when it is being used, and when it’s merely being removed from his pocket. The card is transparent but there is not even a shadow of the reverse image when the card is flipped over, which means that it is redrawing when it detects it is exactly parallel to his eyes.

If that’s not impossible enough for you, consider the close-up of the handheld display. That grid could be a background element on screen, but I doubt it’s coincidental that it mimics a close-up of an iPod retina display. On an iPod, each of those squares is a pixel, and that square is 0.00307 inches on a side. The text in the upper-left and the image to the left appear to mimic sub-pixel rendering on a current display, but for the rest of that text, clearly the designers just said “fuck it.” You want a curve like that “O” on a Retina display? I’m guessing that’s at least 10 more pixels within each 0.00307 of an inch, or 100 pixels per square, for a total of 1.06 billion pixels per square inch implied on this screen.

There is still more mock-up bullshit to come, to be continued in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Microsoft’s Dystopian Hellscape, part 1

  1. Pingback: Microsoft’s Dystopian Hellscape, part 2 | The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy

  2. Pingback: Modest Proposals for Microsoft’s Future | The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy

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