ON FEBRUARY 10TH, 1982, in a room full of designers and engineers drinking champagne and eating cake, Steve Jobs called out the names of Apple’s Macintosh team. And one by one, beginning with motherboard engineer Burrell Smith, they signed their names to a large sheet of paper.
These 47 signatures—some in perfect script, others loopy and illegible, a few just hastily printed—would soon be inscribed on the inside of every Macintosh, etched into the hard plastic case. According to former engineer Andy Hertzfeld, whose signature is on that paper and whose business card during his time at Apple read “Software Wizard,” this was a natural course of events. “Since the Macintosh team were artists,” he wrote on his blog Folklore.org, “it was only appropriate that we sign our work.”
Yet what Dye seems most fascinated by is one of the Apple Watch’s faces, called Motion, which you can set to show a flower blooming. Each time you raise your wrist, you’ll see a different color, a different flower. This is not CGI. It’s photography.
“We shot all this stuff,” Dye says, “the butterflies and the jellyfish and the flowers for the motion face, it’s all in-camera. And so the flowers were shot blooming over time. I think the longest one took us 285 hours, and over 24,000 shots.”
He flips a few pages further into the making-of book, onto the first of several full-page spreads with gorgeous photos of jellyfish. There’s no obvious reason to have a jellyfish watch face. Dye just loves the way they look. “We thought that there was something beautiful about jellyfish, in this sort of space-y, alien, abstract sort of way,” he says. But they didn’t just visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium with an underwater camera. They built a tank in their studio, and shot a variety of species at 300 frames-per-second on incredibly high-end slow-motion Phantom cameras. Then they shrunk the resulting 4096 x 2304 images to fit the Watch’s screen, which is less than a tenth the size. Now, “when you look at the Motion face of the jellyfish, no reasonable person can see that level of detail,” Dye says. “And yet to us it’s really important to get those details right.”
The Watch’s faces are littered with such details. The Mickey Mouse face, which is an explicit update on the 1933 Mickey Mouse Watch from Ingersoll, was particularly complex. Select this face, and watch Mickey’s toe tap once per second, in perfect time. Line up a bunch of watches, Dye says, and they’ll all tap at exactly the same time. There’s no reason to point out that almost no one will ever fact-check this claim—he doesn’t care. He did it for the same reason Jony Ive has taken to personally designing the internals of the Mac. Details matter.
The Astronomy watch face is another of Dye’s favorites: it gives you a view of the Earth as if you were floating peacefully above it. Spin the Digital Crown and you see moon phases, the Earth’s rotation, and even the solar system. It’s a riff on the oldest method of telling the time just with digital stars and planets instead of those far-away real ones.
Dye points out the subtlety of this face. “When you tap on the Earth and fly over the moon: We worked really hard with our engineering team to make sure the path you take from your actual position on the Earth to where the moon is and seeing its phase, is true to the actual position of the Earth relative to the moon.”
Apple employees often use the word “inevitable” to describe their work. When Dye uses it, it’s self-deprecating, as if to say: ‘this was always the right answer, but it took us a while to figure that out.’ It’s true of even seemingly simple things, he says, like the concentric circles the Watch uses to display your fitness goals.
“I couldn’t tell you from a design perspective the number of iterations we did on those three rings.” The human interface team wanted to make it easy to see progress and activity for the day, but also to make you want to hit your goals. “We spent a year, and did far more studies… enough studies to kind of fill this wall, probably,” he says, gesturing to the giant glass walls of Apple’s Caffe Macs cafeteria. “Different ways that, at a glance, someone could understand that information, and easily assess where they’re at in their day, and hopefully in a really simple and visceral way feel like they accomplished something when they fill them up.” They arrived at three circles because there’s just something about a not-quite-complete circle that drives you just crazy enough to take those last 400 steps.
They wanted to pay tribute to the original architecture of the galleries by using it as a raw material for their work.
“As the space is a provocation to artists and curators, so the installation is a provocation to the building,” Diller told Dezeen.
“One of the obvious attributes is this transparency and how it creates a provocation to everyone using it. So our first instinct was to create a problem for that transparency and to flirt with it in a different way.”
The glass walls of the larger gallery space to the left of the main entrance are coated with a liquid crystal film that fades in and out of transparency as an electric current passes through it.
“Liquid crystal film has been around probably for about twenty years or more. Generally it goes off and on. What makes this film unique is that you can control it,” explained Scofidio. “You can actually dial it down so it gradually changes to transparent, to translucent.”
“We tried to make it as invisible as possible,” added Diller.
A red plastic bucket on wheels appears to be the only occupant of the room. Inside the bucket is a camera and sensors that guide its movements around the space to collect drops of water that fall from the ceiling, as if there is a leak. As each drop falls, a loud noise sounds.
“We came up with this kind of mischievous thing, this leak. Just a leak, but it’s a very smart leak with a very smart bucket that captures it,” said Diller. “The [idea of this] empty space with just one very kind of banal object that is actually doing something very smart – it grew out of that. And then we thought: okay what do we do with the sound of that drop? How do we relate it to the next space?”
The smaller gallery to the right of the main entrance is occupied by a large screen that hangs parallel to the floor like a suspended ceiling, but just one metre above ground level.
To view the images being shown, visitors are invited to lie down on black loungers supported on wheels and propel themselves underneath the screen or use curved mirrors controlled using long black metal handles.
Once underneath, the moving image they see is a blown up version of the video footage captured by the camera in the bucket moving around in the space opposite. As each drop falls into the bucket, the surface of the water ripples, with the effect becoming amplified on the screen.
The sounds initially generated to accompany the drops of water also become distorted in the second room and choral voices are added to the acoustic arrangement, which was devised by American composer David Lang.
“The notion of, in one space – in the big space – doing something very tiny, almost invisible, almost nothing, and then taking that to the other space, makes it into the comic here and the sublime over there,” said Diller.
“It’s doing something that’s very ethereal in a way, but also grotesque, with that very large image and that drop becoming very forceful and the compression of watching with that very low floor-to-ceiling height.”
“We started by doing installations in galleries and it’s only now that we are the other side of the wall,” said Scofidio.
“We never said ‘one day we’ll be doing this’ or ‘one day we’ll have a big office’. It was never our intention. We were simply doing things that interested us and using the way that architects conceive the world to investigate conditions which we generally don’t pay a lot of attention to.”
The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made.
Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.
When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.
As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on “Sgt. Peppers’” went for just $800 (that’s $2,300 in today’s money).
For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.
Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion’s quote—‘I don’t want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”
Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.
In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.
“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”
At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the “rules of the process” at each stage.
But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.
It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”
A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.
When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.
“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.
“I’ve done it and seen it many times,” he said. “Take something flawed, work on it ’til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It’s worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it’s a worse final product.”
This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as “option paralysis,” a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.
The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.
It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.
Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.
“The trick,” Kehew says, “is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don’t treat every damn thing as being so precious that ‘It Must Be Perfect For All Time.’”
I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it’s not that good, you shouldn’t be recording it.”
Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.
Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.
The first thing you notice about the IBM Model M keyboard, when you finally get your hands on it, is its size. After years of tapping chiclet keys and glass screens on two- and three-pound devices, hefting five pounds of plastic and metal (including a thick steel plate) is slightly intimidating. The second thing is the sound – the solid click that’s turned a standard-issue beige peripheral into one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques.
Next year, the Model M turns 30. But to many people, it’s still the only keyboard worth using.
Looking at a Model M for the first time in years, what was most remarkable about the keyboard was just how unremarkable it looks. The Model M might be a relic of the past, but its DNA remains in almost every keyboard we use today.
The QWERTY keyboard layout was designed for typewriters in the late 19th century and quickly became universal. But by the time IBM released its first PC in 1981, layout was no longer a simple matter of spaces and capital letters — users now needed special keys to communicate with word processors, terminals, and “microcomputers.” In hindsight, keyboards from the ’70s and ’80s range from familiar to counterintuitive to utterly foreign: in the IBM PC’s original 83-key keyboard — known as the PC / XT — the all-important Shift and Return keys were undersized and pushed to the side, their labels replaced by enigmatic arrows. The entire thing looks like a mess of tiny buttons and inexplicable gaps. In August of 1984, IBM announced the far more palatable PC / AT keyboard. Compared to the previous model, “the AT keyboard is unassailable,” said PC Magazine. The AT couldn’t pass for a present-day keyboard: the function keys are arranged in two rows on the far left instead of along the top, Escape is nestled in the numeric keypad, and Ctrl and Caps Lock have been switched. Even so, it’s cleaner and far more comprehensible than its predecessor to modern eyes.
But IBM wanted something more than merely acceptable. In the early ’80s the company had assembled a 10-person task force to build a better keyboard, informed by experts and users. The design for the previous iteration was done “quickly, expeditiously — not the product of a lot of focus group activity,” says David Bradley, a member of the task force who also happens to be the creator of the now-universal Ctrl+Alt+Delete function. The new group brought in novice computer users to test a friendlier keyboard, making important controls bigger and duplicating commonly used keys like Ctrl and Alt so they could be reached by either hand. Many of the keys were detachable from their bases, letting users swap them around as needed. And the Model M was born.
Introduced in 1985 as part of the IBM 3161 terminal, the Model M was initially called the “IBM Enhanced Keyboard.” A PC-compatible version appeared the following spring, and it officially became standard with the IBM Personal System / 2 in 1987.
That layout of the Model M has been around so long that today it’s simply taken for granted. But the keyboard’s descendents have jettisoned one of the Model M’s most iconic features — “buckling springs,” a key system introduced in the PC / XT. Unlike mechanical switches that are depressed straight down like plungers, the Model M has springs under each key that contract, snap flat, or “buckle,” and then spring back into place when released. They demand attention in a way that the soft, silent rubber domes in most modern keyboards don’t. This isn’t always a good thing; Model M owners sometimes ruefully post stories of spouses and coworkers who can’t stand the incessant chatter. But fans say the springs’ resistance and their audible “click” make it clear when a keypress is registered, reducing errors. Maybe more importantly, typing on the Model M is a special, tangible experience. Much like on a typewriter, the sharp click gives every letter a physical presence.
“This is like oil. One day oil will run out. It’ll be a big crash,” says Ermita. For now, though, that crash seems far away. The oldest Model Ms have already lasted 30 years, and Ermita hopes they’ll make it for another 10 or 20 — long enough for at least one more generation to use a piece of computing history.
The Model M is an artifact from a time when high-end computing was still the province of industry, not pleasure. The computer that standardized it, the PS / 2, sold for a minimum of $2,295 (or nearly $5,000 today) and was far less powerful and versatile than any modern smartphone. In the decades since, computers have become exponentially more capable, and drastically cheaper. But in that shift, manufacturers have abandoned the concept of durability and longevity: in an environment where countless third-party companies are ready to sell customers specialty mice and keyboards at bargain basement prices, it’s hard to justify investing more than the bare minimum.
That disposability has made us keenly aware of what we’ve lost, and inspired a passion for hardware that can, well, take a licking and keep on clicking. As one Reddit user recently commented, “Those bastards are the ORIGINAL gaming keyboards. No matter how much you abuse it, you’ll die before it does.”
1981 IBM PC/XT
1984 IBM PC/AT
1985 IBM Model M
2014 Unicomp Ultra Classic
Tesla’s newly launched Model SD electric car could be “summoned” by owners to pick them up autonomously using the car company’s new Autopilot function, potentially eliminating the need for taxi services.
By integrating a number of safety technologies, Tesla‘s Autopilot system could eventually enable its electric cars to drive and collect passengers without anyone at the wheel, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Drivers could command their cars to pick them up using their phones, or by pre-programming a calendar.
“You’ll be able to summon the car and it will come to wherever you are,” explained Musk. “It can even go a step beyond that… if you have your calendar turned on, it’ll meet you there”.
Under existing regulations, drivers will be able to use the Autopilot mode on private land for a number of functions including self-parking.
“When you get home, you’ll actually be able to just step out of the car and have it park itself in your garage,” said Musk.
The car will be able to steer itself to stay within a lane and change lanes as well as manage its own speed by “reading” road signs. According to Tesla, it will take “several months” for all Autopilot features to be completed and uploaded to the cars.
“Tesla’s Autopilot is a way to relieve drivers of the most boring and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel – but the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car,” explained a statement released by Tesla.
The vehicle’s safety features, which have enabled its Autopilot functionality, include a forward-looking radar system that can detect potential collision risks even in poor weather conditions.
A camera located at the front has been programmed to distinguish road features such as traffic lights and safety barriers, as well as pedestrians and cyclists.
Twelve sensors have also been positioned around the vehicle to form a “safety cocoon”, which detects hazards in blind spots.
The system can activate a digitally controlled electric braking system and give tactile feedback through the steering wheel, alerting the driver to perceived risks.
In addition to enhanced safety features and Autopilot, the Model SD has managed to match the acceleration performance of the iconic McLaren F1 sports car, reaching 60 miles per hour from a standstill in just 3.2 seconds.
The power is generated from two electric motors, which are located on the front and rear axels respectively. Each motor is digitally and independently controlling torque to the front and rear wheels, making minor adjustments to effectively translate its power to the road without loss of traction and wheel-spinning.
“We’re going to have an option in the settings whereby you’ll actually be able to choose from three settings,” explained Musk. “Normal, sport and insane.”