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SXSW: How To Move Your Creative Ideas Forward, From A Holographic Designer

by Christy Robinson 10 Mar 2018 5:47 PM

The experiments Mike Pell pulls off at Microsoft Garage demand imagination. He shares insight on how to cultivate a creative mind that thinks big.


I’m attending the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival, exploring issues, breakthroughs and ideas at the crossroads of technology and culture. Follow me at @christyrobinson for short updates along the way.

Mike Pell’s job is to develop technology that inserts dinosaurs into hotel lobbies.

That takes an incredible amount of engineering, but it also takes the Microsoft Garage Envisioneer (yes, that’s his title) an incredible amount of imagination.

His futuristic design work includes developing augmented reality, virtual reality and holographic experiences, requiring both code and creativity.

During his “Envisioning Holograms: For Storytellers & Explorers” session at SXSW, Pell said he believes mixed reality — the combining of physical and virtual worlds, in real time — will explode as a primary way to tell stories in advertising, entertainment, business and at home.

Pell, who leads design at the Garage, shared what kind of mindset it takes to envision realities that likely no one else has ever thought of before. It’s one that others can cultivate for their own creative projects, too.

Always wonder what could be

Constantly question reality. Pell shared many of his wild ideas by starting off with, “Why can’t we …?”

He pointed to session attendees and asked, instead of figuring out the location of our next session by opening up a phone app, or digging out a brochure from our bags, why can’t we just call up a hologram? It could display the conference schedule and session locations in the air right in front us, showing us a direct path to make the session on time.

When you’re reading a book on an e-reader and you’ve come to a great battle scene, why can’t the battle materialize in front of you so you can watch it unfold?


Pew pew! Reading Ready Player One, envisioned on Pell’s website,

If you’re wearing a head-mounted display and experiencing something great in virtual reality, why can’t you share what you’re seeing with someone else sitting in the room, without them having to also put on the headset? Why can’t you simply project the virtual world you’re experiencing into the space in front of you, for people in the real world to see, too? You could keep your VR experience private or make parts of it materialize for others.

Instead of viewing our bank statement and other assets on a relatively small webpage, why can’t we fill the space of an entire room with a visualization of our personal finances so we can view transactions, or our financial health’s strengths and weaknesses, at scale?

Why can’t you visit a museum with your family, but also include the grandfather who’s at home in a different city? A hologram of him could accompany you, and he could use mixed reality to experience the visit on his end.

See what isn’t there

Pell says he regularly “sees things that aren’t there.” Just because something isn’t doesn’t mean it can’t beat least as mixed reality. Instead of an empty hotel lobby, for instance, Pell envisions what could bring that space to life, like a holographic DJ playing music.



He says stretching your imagination, especially to the extreme degree required for creating different realities, requires that you leap so far ahead that your idea feels crazy.

Pell suggests Rorschaching your way through life: Instead of seeing two lightbulbs side-by-side, train yourself to see a pair of chameleon’s eyes.

Reality glossary

» Physical: “Real” life.
» Virtual (VR): You’re totally immersed in a computer-generated environment, tricking your senses into thinking you’re actually there. Achieved with a VR headset.
» Mixed / augmented (MR / AR): A seamless blending of physical and virtual worlds in real time. Usage of these two terms often overlap. Often experienced the lens on a smartphone.
» Holograms: Light-projected, 3D objects not requiring any sort of optical device to view, creating a mixed reality experience.
» Extended (XR): Industry term for the whole collection of realities.

Put your imagination to work

Sometimes an idea stalls simply because it seems too unviable, so we end up not starting at all, or starting then getting stuck.

At the Garage, Microsoft’s outlet for experimental projects, the way to realize a crazy idea is by doing it, not talking about it. And then doing it again and again, to learn more.

Pell gives these tips for putting into motion ideas that seem too massive to budge forward:

  • Just start.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail! “People tend to hang on too long” when a project goes belly-up. “We’re getting more comfortable with failing, but it’s still hard for people to quit and move forward.”
  • Stop overthinking things and go, go, go. A rapid pace helps you not to stop, ruminate or get blocked.
  • Pell recommends “framing” — figure out along the way what aspects of your project you don’t actually care about, then chuck it.
  • Collect ideas as they occur to you. Figure out how to do that in a way that works specifically for you. Pell deals a lot with spatiality. Of all his methods, one of his favorites is walking around and taking pictures of empty spaces. That allows him later to use those photos as blank canvasses for envisioning people and experiences in those spaces.

Some of Pell’s ideas for mixed reality may seem pretty far out, but he says existing technology supports it; it just needs further experimentation and development.

VR headsets may look dorky today. You can’t use them out and about in real life without looking really awkward and possibly hurting yourself.

But every game-changing technology started with clunky beginnings, Pell said. One day, VR won’t require a headset.

In making a case for spending effort, energy and time (and money) making seemingly untenable ideas reality, he reminded attendees about how ridiculous early mobile phones were. Callers looked like they were holding giant bricks against their heads, and that was if they could get a signal at all.

Through continued experimentation, development and refinement, mobile communication has advanced light years, Pell said.

Someone’s formerly-impossible idea is now commonplace.

Learn more about Pell and his work here at his website. You can purchase his book, Envisioning Holograms: Design Breakthrough Experiences for Mixed Reality, here on Amazon.