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Software with soul, software that sells
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Today I want to tease a larger idea I’m working through and hopefully get some of your feedback, before coming back with a more thorough deep-dive. From time to time I’m going to use this space to test a kernel of an idea and see if it should be given more room to run.
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In a recent essay, I explored the idea of spatial software in our near future: how certain design elements, landscapes, and mechanics of video games will find their way into the broader set of software we use on the daily. Consumer & enterprise productivity apps, as well as social media, will embrace spatial interfaces, will improve our sense of presence through avatars, audio and haptics, and will dial up more stimuli and realism with virtual physics — real world phenomena encoded in the digital experience.
All these years into the internet and most moments online still feel like working or computing or “using” an app — far from living. Each app-scape is basically a scroll of digital paper, draped over a database, with buttons, hyperlinks, and text fields sprinkled on top. It’s too reductive. We need some expanse.
The near future will see huge growth in social media and productivity software that places the user in some version of space, in relation to objects or goals or other users…There’s simply too much meaning and utility in embodiment to reserve it only for games.
That’s a recap of some of my thinking. But if you want to read an expert on the subject, I suggest you check out John C. Palmer’s writing.
Jump cut >>> Riffing on spatial software got me thinking about how commercial software is gradually becoming more artful. Developers and designers have always crafted beautiful, strange apps. If you looked hard enough, you could always find avant garde products and experiences in certain corners of the internet. Now, commercially viable, artful digital experiences are inching toward the mainstream.
Branding is increasingly a function of UX/UI. In a world of attention warfare, saturated by messaging, brands need to supply fluidity and experiential novelty in order to cut through:
Does the brand enable us to move through the world in an inventive way, where friction recedes and new modalities offer more choice, more freedom?
Or perhaps the brand invites us to an all-new world that it has conceived?
Beyond the core product, much of a brand’s aesthetic, vibe, and meaning used to come from its logo and graphic design and ad copy; now we assess those qualities by judging the brand’s sensibilities around human-computer interaction.
There’s an almost religious aspect of designing for mass market scale, because we, the public, will be compelled toward applications that deliver elegance, beauty, playfulness, grace. Artful, soulful, ethereal software that manages to retain a high degree of commercial utility shows that a brand understands something fundamental about how the world works — understands technology and us, and can mediate that relationship in a healthy or invigorating way. More and more, that's who we’ll want to buy from.
The corporate club isn’t quite there yet, but will start to understand and invest more heavily in this opportunity. For now, look to indies and startups doing the real good stuff. Here are a few examples I’m obsessed with at the moment, which point to big things ahead.
I’ve been keeping an eye on Eternal, “an avatar world for close friends,” which launches soon and recently shared an Official Trailer. Visually, it’s both striking and soothing. The sound design brings a mood and level of detail I didn’t know I needed, but now demand. Like a great Pixar movie, there’s a child-like playfulness to it all, but not at the expense of adult themes and discernment.
Eternal looks like it feels like snacking on cotton candy that’s been perfectly dosed. Not too strong — I want to be floating, but also productive and engaged. And yeah, that’s exactly the kind of experience I want from the next wave of software.
When a friend shared Art Sqool, I laughed for a minute, then immediately wanted to enroll. It’s hard to say, but Art Sqool might be a cynical commentary on art education masquerading as a game; either way, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine that “serious” educational tools will head in this direction.
You can see the aesthetic parallels to something like Eternal, from the color palette to the kawaii nature of the avatars and landscape. And you also feel the personality oozing off this thing. I’ll leave you with the amazing description:
You are FROSHMIN, and it's your freshman year at ART SQOOL. Make art and explore the beautiful, mysterious, sprawling Art Sqool Campus. PROFESSOR QWERTZ, an art-trained A.I., is your faculty advisor. He will use his high-tech capabilities to objectively grade your work. 🖼Explore the sprawling Art Sqool campus in 3D 🖌Find and collect cool brushes to help you ✨Creative fulfillment basically guaranteed 🎧Soundtrack is a banger
MSCHF, virality geniuses and masters of the drop, recently shared Severed Spots, an eCommerce experiment to sell distributed, tangible shares of ownership in an original Damien Hirst. The commercialized object in this case is art itself. And the mechanism to involve an audience and facilitate commerce, artful. The site simultaneously feels like a very familiar eComm environment and a completely new way of doing business. Online shopping meets gallery grazing meets auction house and conspicuous consumption. If you’re in retail/DTC/eCommerce, you need to be taking note of stuff like this.
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