Think You Can’t Escape Google? You Haven’t Seen Anything yet

More than any designer this side of Cupertino, Matias Duarte has made phones easy to use. During his tenure at Google—first overseeing the design of Android—the vice president of design watched Google’s operating system capture more than 85% of the global smartphone market. Duarte has likened his own work in mainstreaming these addictive devices to that of an arms dealer—”I just make the guns! I didn’t make you guys shoot each other!”—but he’s also not slowing down. After pioneering Material Design—a user interface metaphor that’s helped de-uglify and unify Google’s products—he’s here to stump for a new vision of Google’s computing future, one that extends well beyond the smartphone. “We’ve been calling this idea ambient computing,” says Duarte. “Where you are able to reach services wherever you are.” Ambient computing—also dubbed ubiquitous computing or calm computing—isn’t a new idea. It’s simply the premise that, eventually, computer interaction will reach beyond our devices into the environment around us. The news of today is that Google is repositioning an open source technology it developed called Flutter to have a bigger scope. It’s a software development kit that allows designers to build an app UI just once, and then use that UI on platforms like Android, iOS, or the web without needing to rebuild it or recode it. Flutter allows rich, animated interfaces to be transferred between devices—which has led a million developers to adopt it since 2018. If you’ve played the New York Times crossword puzzle on a phone, or tried Realtor.com’s app, you’ve experienced Flutter without even realizing it. [Image: Google] But whereas Flutter once connected apps across phones and laptops, now, Google is positioning Flutter as the user interface platform to power ambient computing. Basically, Google wants to make Flutter the gateway to building the digital interface of the world itself. An idea decades in the making Ambient computing as an idea can be most easily traced back to the late ’80s at Xerox PARC, where the late researcher Mark Weiser proposed that, instead of computers that glued us to our desks, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” He imagined, and began prototyping, a digital world connected by wireless frequencies, tracking and reacting to our needs, and answering our queries through conversation rather than graphic interface. One of his group’s most notable projects was developed by artist Natalie Jeremijenko. Called Dangling String, it was an eight-foot-long plastic wire that whirled in concert with increased network traffic—a quiet manifestation of the digital world. Weiser passed away too early, at age 46 in 1999. And many of his ideas were thought-subverted by the rise of smartphones (though to be fair, he predicted those, too). Why would an environment need to be intelligent or a digital experience barely visible, if you could just carry an internet-connected supercomputer around in your pocket? But now, the world is catching up to Weiser’s thinking. Amazon and Google both make voice assistants, along with their own automated camera systems to monitor your home. Google’s vice president of Hardware Design Ivy Ross has told me that the built environment is the next great frontier for her design department; this year, she demoed a concept, which showed users their biometric response to environments filled with different scents, colors, and furnishings. Google’s design team reaffirmed the company’s interest in building hardware for ambient computing at its 2019 Google I/O conference in May. The missing piece: a UI framework Now, crucially, Duarte is rounding out the narrative for Google from the standpoint of user interfaces, explaining…

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