MIT researchers are working on AI-based knitting design software that will let anyone, even novices, make their own clothes

The growing popularity of 3D printing machines and companies like Thingiverse and Shapeways have given previously unimaginable powers to makers, enabling them to create everything from cosplay accessories to replacement parts. But even though 3D printing has created a new world of customized objects, most of us are still buying clothes off the rack. Now researchers at MIT are working on software that will allow anyone to customize or design their own knitwear, even if they have never picked up a ball of yarn.

A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), led by computer scientist Alexandre Kaspar, released two new papers describing the software today. One is about a system called InverseKnit that automatically creates patterns from photos of knitted items. The other one introduces new design software, called CADKnit, that allows people with no knitting or design experience to quickly customize templates, adjusting the size, final shape and decorative details (like the gloves shown below).

The final patterns can be used with a knitting machine, which have been available to home knitters for years, but still require a fair amount of technical knowledge in order to design patterns for.

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Gloves made using CADknit

Both CADKnit and InverseKnit want to make designing and making machine-knitted garments as accessible as 3D printing is now. Once the software is commercialized, Kaspar envisions “knitting as a service” for consumers who want to order customized garments. It can also enable clothing designers to spend less time learning how to write knitwear patterns for machines and reduce waste in the prototyping and manufacturing process. Another target audience for the software are hand-knitters who want to try a new way of working with yarn.

“If you think about it like 3D printing, a lot of people have been using 3D printers or hacking 3D printers, so they are great potential users for our system, because they can do that with knitting,” says Kaspar.

One potential partner for CADKnit and InverseKnit is Kniterate, a company that makes a digital knitting machine for hobbyists, makerspaces and small businesses. Kaspar says he has been talking to Kniterate’s team about making knitwear customization more accessible.

To develop InverseKnit, researchers first created a dataset of knitting patterns with matching images that were used to train a deep neural network to generate machine knitting patterns. The team says that during InverseKnit’s testing, the system produced accurate instructions 94% of the time. There is still some work to do before InverseKnit can be commercialized. For example, the machine was tested using one specific type of acrylic yarn, so it needs to be trained to work with other fibers.

CADKnit, on the other hand, combines 2D images with CAD and photo-editing software to create customizable templates. It was tested with knitting newbies, who despite having little machine knitting experience were still able to create relatively complex garments like gloves and effects, including lace motifs and color patterns.

“3D printing took a while before people were comfortable enough to think they could do something with it,” says Kaspar. “It will be the same thing with what we do.”

This free, ugly font is made from hideously gerrymandered districts

There are a lot of ugly fonts out there, but outside Papyrus, few illustrate a deeper sickness in our society. A new typeface called Ugly Gerry does just that: Its letters are formed from the shapes of grotesquely gerrymandered U.S. districts.

There’s no doubt gerrymandering is one of the scourges of our political “system”: nothing more than a way for incumbents to stack the odds in their favor, further disenfranchising and redlining disfavored populations and districts.

And while districts may take many shapes due to the natural features of the cities and regions they occupy or contain, in many contentious ones the hand of the man is more than evident, producing contortions weird and various.

The bright side is that this variety is so great that among it can be found shapes resembling (slightly) all the capital letters of the English alphabet. So that’s just what rogue creatives Ben Doessel and James Lee did.

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“After seeing how janky our Illinois 4th district had become, we became interested in this issue,” the team wrote in a little press release they provided. “We noticed our district’s vague, but shaky U-shape, then after seeing other letters on the map, the idea hit us, let’s create a typeface so our districts can become digital graffiti that voters and politicians can’t ignore.”

The resulting type is ugly, but so, they point out, is gerrymandering. They also had to cheat a few by sticking two districts together, but that too seems in the spirit of the thing.

You can download the font for free at

While I suspect that Doessel and Lee have underestimated politicians’ ability to ignore things, it’s good to draw attention to this un-democratic practice, and you’re encouraged (as with most things) to tweet. Of course the very best thing you can do is call your representatives and officials and register your protest against gerrymandering in general, and to vote if possible to limit or outlaw it.

Today, tweeting about a novelty font… tomorrow, action! That’s the idea, anyway.

How Microsoft turns an obsession with detail into micron-optimized keyboards

Nestled among the many indistinguishable buildings of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, a multi-disciplinary team sharing an attention to detail that borders on fanatical is designing a keyboard… again and again and again. And one more time for good measure. Their dogged and ever-evolving dedication to “human factors” shows the amount of work that goes into making any piece of hardware truly ergonomic.

Microsoft may be known primarily for its software and services, but cast your mind back a bit and you’ll find a series of hardware advances that have redefine their respective categories:

The original Natural Keyboard was the first split-key, ergonomic keyboard, the fundamentals of which have only ever been slightly improved upon.

The Intellimouse Optical not only made the first truly popular leap away from ball-based mice, but did so in such a way that its shape and buttons still make its descendants among the best all-purpose mice on the market.

Remember me?

Although the Zune is remembered more for being a colossal boondoggle than a great music player, it was very much the latter, and I still use and marvel at the usability of my Zune HD. Yes, seriously. (Microsoft, open source the software!)

More recently, the Surface series of convertible notebooks have made bold and welcome changes to a form factor that had stagnated in the wake of Apple’s influential mid-2000s MacBook Pro designs.

Microsoft is still making hardware, of course, and in fact it has doubled down on its ability to do so with a revamped hardware lab filled with dedicated, extremely detail-oriented people who are given the tools they need to get as weird as they want — as long as it makes something better.

You don’t get something like this by aping the competition.

First, a disclosure: I may as well say at the outset that this piece was done essentially at the invitation (but not direction) of Microsoft, which offered the opportunity to visit their hardware labs in Building 87 and meet the team. I’d actually been there before a few times, but it had always been off-record and rather sanitized.

Knowing how interesting I’d found the place before, I decided I wanted to take part and share it at the risk of seeming promotional. They call this sort of thing “access journalism,” but the second part is kind of a stretch. I really just think this stuff is really cool, and companies seldom expose their design processes in the open like this. Microsoft obviously isn’t the only company to have hardware labs and facilities like this, but they’ve been in the game for a long time and have an interesting and almost too detailed process they’ve decided to be open about.

Although I spoke with perhaps a dozen Microsoft Devices people during the tour (which was still rigidly structured), only two were permitted to be on record: Edie Adams, Chief Ergonomist, and Yi-Min Huang, Principal Design and Experience Lead. But the other folks in the labs were very obliging in answering questions and happy to talk about their work. I was genuinely surprised and pleased to find people occupying niches so suited to their specialities and inclinations.

Generally speaking the work I got to see fell into three general spaces: the Human Factors Lab, focused on very exacting measurements of people themselves and how they interact with a piece of hardware; the anechoic chamber, where the sound of devices is obsessively analyzed and adjusted; and the Advanced Prototype Center, where devices and materials can go from idea to reality in minutes or hours.

The science of anthropometry

microsoft building87 7100095Inside the Human Factors lab, human thumbs litter the table. No, it isn’t a torture chamber — not for humans, anyway. Here the company puts its hardware to the test by measuring how human beings use it, recording not just simple metrics like words per minute on a keyboard, but high-speed stereo footage that analyzes how the skin of the hand stretches when it reaches for a mouse button down to a fraction of a millimeter.

The trend here, as elsewhere in the design process and labs, is that you can’t count anything out as a factor that increases or decreases comfort; the little things really do make a difference, and sometimes the microscopic ones.

“Feats of engineering heroics are great,” said Adams, “but they have to meet a human need. We try to cover the physical, cognitive, and emotional interactions with our products.”

(Perhaps you take this, as I did, as — in addition to a statement of purpose — a veiled reference to a certain other company whose keyboards have been in the news for other reasons. Of this later.)

The lab is a space perhaps comparable to a medium-sized restaurant, with enough room for a dozen or so people to work in the various sub-spaces set aside for different highly specific measurements. Various models of body parts have been set out on work surfaces, I suspect for my benefit.

microsoft building87 7100099Among them are that set of thumbs, in little cases looking like oversized lipsticks, each with a disturbing surprise inside. These are all cast from real people, ranging from the small thumb of a child to a monster that, should it have started a war with mine, I would surrender unconditionally.

Next door is a collection of ears, not only rendered in extreme detail but with different materials simulating a variety of rigidities. Some people have soft ears, you know. And next door to those is a variety of noses, eyes, and temples, each representing a different facial structure or interpupillary distance.

This menagerie of parts represents not just a continuum of sizes but a variety of backgrounds and ages. All of them come into play when creating and testing a new piece of hardware.

microsoft building87 7100104 1“We want to make sure that we have a diverse population we can draw on when we develop our products,” said Adams. When you distribute globally it is embarrassing to find that some group or another, with wider-set eyes or smaller hands, finds your product difficult to use. Inclusivity is a many-faceted gem, indeed it has as many facets as you are willing to cut. (The Xbox Adaptive Controller, for instance, is a new and welcome one.)

In one corner stands an enormous pod that looks like Darth Vader should emerge from it. This chamber, equipped with 36 DSLR cameras, produces an unforgivingly exact reproduction of one’s head. I didn’t do it myself, but many on the team had; in fact, one eyes-and-nose combo belonged to Adams. The fellow you see pictured there also works in the lab; that was the first such 3D portrait they took with the rig.

With this they can quickly and easily scan in dozens or hundreds of heads, collecting metrics on all manner of physiognomical features and creating an enviable database of both average and outlier heads. My head is big, if you want to know, and my hand was on the upper range too. But well within a couple standard deviations.

So much for static study — getting reads on the landscape of humanity, as it were. Anthropometry, they call it. But there are dynamic elements as well, some of which they collect in the lab, some elsewhere.

“When we’re evaluating keyboards, we have people come into the lab. We try to put them in the most neutral position possible,” explained Adams.

It should be explained that by neutral, she means specifically with regard to the neutral positions of the joints in the body, which have certain minima and maxima it is well to observe. How can you get a good read on how easy it is to type on a given keyboard if the chair and desk the tester is sitting at are uncomfortable?

Here as elsewhere the team strives to collect both objective data and subjective data; people will say they think a keyboard, or mouse, or headset is too this or too that, but not knowing the jargon they can’t get more specific. By listening to subjective evaluations and simultaneously looking at objective measurements, you can align the two and discover practical measures to take.

microsoft building87 7100096One such objective measure involved motion capture beads attached to the hand while an electromyographic bracelet tracks the activation of muscles in the arm. Imagine if you will a person whose typing appears normal and of uniform speed — but in reality they are putting more force on their middle fingers than the others because of the shape of the keys or rest. They might not be able to tell you they’re doing so, though it will lead to uneven hand fatigue, but this combo of tools could reveal the fact.

“We also look at a range of locations,” added Huang. “Typing on a couch is very different from typing on a desk.”

One case, such as a wireless Surface keyboard, might require more of what Huang called “lapability,” (sp?) while the other perhaps needs to accommodate a different posture and can abandon lapability altogether.

A final measurement technique that is quite new to my knowledge involves a pair of high-resolution, high-speed black and white cameras that can be focused narrowly on a region of the body. They’re on the right, below, with colors and arrows representing motion vectors.

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A display showing various anthropometric measurements.

These produce a very detailed depth map by closely tracking the features of the skin; one little patch might move further than the other when a person puts on a headset, suggesting it’s stretching the skin on the temple more than it is on the forehead. The team said they can see movements as small as ten microns, or micrometers (therefore you see that my headline was only light hyperbole).

You might be thinking that this is overkill. And in a way it most certainly is. But it is also true that by looking closer they can make the small changes that cause a keyboard to be comfortable for five hours rather than four, or to reduce error rates or wrist pain by noticeable amounts — features you can’t really even put on the box, but which make a difference in the long run. The returns may diminish, but we’re not so far along the asymptote approaching perfection that there’s no point to making further improvements.

The quietest place in the world

microsoft building87 7100109Down the hall from the Human Factors lab is the quietest place in the world. That’s not a colloquial exaggeration — the main anechoic chamber in Building 87 at Microsoft is in the record books as the quietest place on Earth, with an official ambient noise rating of negative 20.3 decibels.

You enter the room through a series of heavy doors and the quietness, though a void, feels like a physical medium that you pass into. And so it is, in fact — a near-total lack of vibrations in the air that feels as solid as the nested concrete boxes inside which the chamber rests.

I’ve been in here a couple times before, and Hundraj Gopal, the jovial and highly expert proprietor of quietude here, skips the usual tales of Guinness coming to test it and so on. Instead we talk about the value of sound to the consumer, though they may not even realize they do value it.

Naturally if you’re going to make a keyboard, you’re going to want to control how it sounds. But this is a surprisingly complex process, especially if, like the team at Microsoft, you’re really going to town on the details.

The sounds of consumer products are very deliberately designed, they explained. The sound your car door makes when it shuts gives a sense of security — being sealed in when you’re entering, and being securely shut out when you’re leaving it. It’s the same for a laptop — you don’t want to hear a clank when you close it, or a scraping noise when you open it. These are the kinds of things that set apart “premium” devices (and cars, and controllers, and furniture, etc) and they do not come about by accident.

microsoft building87 7100113Keyboards are no exception. And part of designing the sound is understanding that there’s more to it than loudness or even tone. Some sounds just sound louder, though they may not register as high in decibels. And some sounds are just more annoying, though they might be quiet. The study and understanding of this is what’s known as psychoacoustics.

There are known patterns to pursue, certain combinations of sounds that are near-universally liked or disliked, but you can’t rely on that kind of thing when you’re, say, building a new keyboard from the ground up. And obviously when you create a new machine like the Surface and its family they need new keyboards, not something off the shelf. So this is a process that has to be done from scratch over and over.

As part of designing the keyboard — and keep in mind, this is in tandem with the human factors mentioned above and the rapid prototyping we’ll touch on below — the device has to come into the anechoic chamber and have a variety of tests performed.

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A standard head model used to simulate how humans might hear certain sounds. The team gave it a bit of a makeover.

These tests can be painstakingly objective, like a robotic arm pressing each key one by one while a high-end microphone records the sound in perfect fidelity and analysts pore over the spectrogram. But they can also be highly subjective: They bring in trained listeners — “golden ears” — to give their expert opinions, but also have the “gen pop” everyday users try the keyboards while experiencing calibrated ambient noise recorded in coffee shops and offices. One click sound may be lost in the broad-spectrum hubbub in a crowded cafe but annoying when it’s across the desk from you.

This feedback goes both directions, to human factors and prototyping, and they iterate and bring it back for more. This progresses sometimes through multiple phases of hardware, such as the keyswitch assembly alone; the keys built into their metal enclosure; the keys in the final near-shipping product before they finalize the keytop material, and so on.

Indeed, it seems like the process really could go on forever if someone didn’t stop them from refining the design further.

“It’s amazing that we ever ship a product,” quipped Adams. They can probably thank the Advanced Prototype Center for that.

Rapid turnaround is fair play

If you’re going to be obsessive about the details of the devices you’re designing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have to send off a CAD file to some factory somewhere, wait a few days for it to come back, then inspect for quality, send a revised file, and so on. So Microsoft (and of course other hardware makers of any size) now use rapid prototyping to turn designs around in hours rather than days or weeks.

This wasn’t always possible even with the best equipment. 3D printing has come a long way over the last decade, and continues to advance, but not long ago there was a huge difference between a printed prototype and the hardware that a user would actually hold.

microsoft building87 7100128Multi-axis CNC mills have been around for longer, but they’re slower and more difficult to operate. And subtractive manufacturing (i.e. taking a block and whittling it down to a mouse) is inefficient and has certain limitations as far as the structures it can create.

Of course you could carve it yourself out of wood or soap, but that’s a bit old-fashioned.

So when Building 87 was redesigned from the ground up some years back, it was loaded with the latest and greatest of both additive and subtractive rapid manufacturing methods, and the state of the art has been continually rolling through ever since. Even as I passed through they were installing some new machines (desk-sized things that had slots for both extrusion materials and ordinary printer ink cartridges, a fact that for some reason I found hilarious).

The additive machines are in constant use as designers and engineers propose new device shapes and styles that sound great in theory but must be tested in person. Having a bunch of these things, each able to produce multiple items per print, lets you for instance test out a thumb scoop on a mouse with 16 slightly different widths. Maybe you take those over to Human Factors and see which can be eliminated for over-stressing a joint, then compare comfort on the surviving 6 and move on to a new iteration. That could all take place over a day or two.

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Ever wonder what an Xbox controller feels like to a child? Just print a giant one in the lab.

Softer materials have become increasingly important as designers have found that they can be integrated into products from the start. For instance, a wrist wrest for a new keyboard might have foam padding built in.

But how much foam is too much, or too little? As with the 3D printers, flat materials like foam and cloth can be customized and systematically tested as well. Using a machine called a skiver, foam can be split into thicknesses only half a millimeter apart. It doesn’t sound like much — and it isn’t — but when you’re creating an object that will be handled for hours at a time by the sensitive hands of humans, the difference can be subtle but substantial.

For more heavy-duty prototyping of things that need to be made out of metal — hinges, laptop frames, and so on — there is bank after bank of 5-axis CNC machines, lathes, and more exotic tools, like a system that performs extremely precise cuts using a charged wire.

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The engineers operating these things work collaboratively the designers and researchers, and it was important to the people I talked to that this wasn’t a “here, print this” situation. A true collaboration has input from both sides, and that is what seems to be happening here. Someone inspecting a 3D model for printability before popping it into the 5-axis might say to the designer, you know, these pieces could fit together more closely if we did so-and-so, and it would actually add strength to the assembly. (Can you tell I’m not an engineer?) Making stuff, and making stuff better, is a passion among the crew and that’s a fundamentally creative drive.

Making fresh hells for keyboards

If any keyboard has dominated the headlines for the last year or so, it’s been Apple’s ill-fated butterfly switch keyboard on the latest MacBook Pros. While being in my opinion quite unpleasant to type on, they appeared to fail at an astonishing rate judging by the proportion of users I saw personally reporting problems, and are quite expensive to replace. How, I wondered, did a company with Apple’s design resources create such a dog?

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Here’s a piece of hardware you won’t break any time soon.

I mentioned the subject to the group towards the end of the tour but, predictably and understandably, it wasn’t really something they wanted to talk about. But a short time later I spoke with one of the people in charge of Microsoft’s reliability managers. They too demurred on the topic of Apple’s failures, opting instead to describe at length the measures Microsoft takes to ensure that their own keyboards don’t suffer a similar fate.

The philosophy is essentially to simulate everything about the expected 3-5 year life of the keyboard. I’ve seen the “torture chambers” where devices are beaten on by robots (I’ve seen these personally, years ago — they’re brutal), but there’s more to it than that. Keyboards are everyday objects, and they face everyday threats; so that’s what the team tests, with things falling into three general categories:

Environmental: This includes cycling the temperature from very low to very high, exposing the keyboard to dust and UV. This differs for each product, since some will obviously be used outside more than others. Does it break? Does it discolor? Where does the dust go?

Mechanical: Every keyboard undergoes key tests to make sure that keys can withstand however many million presses without failing. But that’s not the only thing that keyboards undergo. They get dropped and things get dropped on them, of course, or left upside-down, or have their keys pressed and held at weird angles. All these things are tested, and when a keyboard fails because of a test they don’t have, they add it.

Chemical. I found this very interesting. The team now has more than 30 chemicals that it exposes its hardware to, including: lotion, Coke, coffee, chips, mustard, ketchup, and Clorox. The team is constantly adding to the list as new chemicals enter frequent usage or new markets open up. Hospitals, for instance, need to test a variety of harsh disinfectants that an ordinary home wouldn’t have. (Note: Burt’s Bees is apparently bad news for keyboards.)

Testing is ongoing, with new batches being evaluated continuously as time allows.

To be honest it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s disappointing keyboard actually underwent this kind of testing, or if it did, that it was modified to survive it. The number and severity of problems I’ve heard of with them suggest the “feats of engineering heroics” of which Adams spoke, but directed singlemindedly in the direction of compactness. Perhaps more torture chambers are required at Apple HQ.

7 factors and the unfactorable

All the above are more tools for executing a design and not or creating one to begin with. That’s a whole other kettle of fish, and one not so easily described.

Adams told me: “When computers were on every desk the same way, it was okay to only have one or two kinds of keyboard. But now that there are so many kinds of computing, it’s okay to have a choice. What kind of work do you do? Where do you do it? I mean, what do we all type on now? Phones. So it’s entirely context dependent.”

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Is this the right curve? Or should it be six millimeters higher? Let’s try both.

Yet even in the great variety of all possible keyboards there are metrics that must be considered if that keyboard is to succeed in its role. The team boiled it down to seven critical points:

  • Key travel: How far a key goes until it bottoms out. Neither shallow nor deep is necessarily good, but serve different purposes.
  • Key spacing: Distance between the center of one key and the next. How far can you differ from “full-size” before it becomes uncomfortable?
  • Key pitch: On many keyboards the keys do not all “face” the same direction, but are subtly pointed towards the home row, because that’s the direction your fingers hit them from. How much is too much? How little is too little?
  • Key dish: The shape of the keytop limits your fingers’ motion, captures them when they travel or return, and provides a comfortable home — if it’s done right.
  • Key texture: Too slick and fingers will slide off. Too rough and it’ll be uncomfortable. Can it be fabric? Textured plastic? Metal?
  • Key Sound: As described above the sound indicates a number of things and has to be carefully engineered.
  • Force to fire: How much actual force does it take to drive a given key to its actuation point? Keep in mind this can and perhaps should differ from key to key.

In addition to these core concepts there are many secondary ones that pop up for consideration: Wobble, or the amount a key moves laterally (yes, this is deliberate), snap ratio, involving the feedback from actuation. Drop angle, off-axis actuation, key gap for chiclet boards… and of course the inevitable switch debate.

Keyboard switches, the actual mechanism under the key, have become a major sub-industry as many companies started making their own at the expiration of a few important patents. Hence there’s been a proliferation of new key switches with a variety of aspects, especially on the mechanical side. Microsoft does make mechanical keyboards, and scissor-switch keyboards, and membrane as well, and perhaps even some more exotic ones (though the original touch-sensitive Surface cover keyboard was a bit of a flop).

“When we look at switches, whether it’s for a mouse, QWERTY, or other keys, we think about what they’re for,” said Adams. “We’re not going to say we’re scissor switch all the time or something — we have all kinds. It’s about durability, reliability, cost, supply, and so on. And the sound and tactile experience is so important.”

As for the shape itself, there is generally the divided Natural style, the flat full style, and the flat chiclet style. But with design trends, new materials, new devices, and changes to people and desk styles (you better believe a standing desk needs a different keyboard than a sitting one), it’s a new challenge every time.

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They collected a menagerie of keyboards and prototypes in various stages of experimentation. Some were obviously never meant for real use — one had the keys pitched so far that it was like a little cave for the home row. Another was an experiment in how much a design could be shrunk until it was no longer usable. A handful showed different curves a la Natural — which is the right one? Although you can theorize, the only way to be sure is to lay hands on it. So tell rapid prototyping to make variants 1-10, then send them over to Human Factors and text the stress and posture resulting from each one.

“Sure, we know the gable slope should be between 10-15 degrees and blah blah blah,” said Adams, who is actually on the patent for the original Natural Keyboard, and so is about as familiar as you can get with the design. “But what else? What is it we’re trying to do, and how are we achieving that through engineering? It’s super fun bringing all we know about the human body and bringing that into the industrial design.”

Although the comparison is rather grandiose, I was reminded of an orchestra — but not in full swing. Rather, in the minutes before a symphony begins, and all the players are tuning their instruments. It’s a cacophony in a way, but they are all tuning towards a certain key, and the din gradually makes its way to a pleasant sort of hum. So it is that a group of specialists all tending their sciences and creeping towards greater precision seem to cohere a product out of the ether that is human-centric in all its parts. launches its big redesign with simpler navigation and more features

Twitter’s website is getting a major overhaul. The company has been testing a new version of its desktop website since the beginning of the year, and today the final product is rolling out to the public. The upgraded experience simplifies navigation with a new — and fairly large — left-hand sidebar that directs you to all of Twitter’s key sections, including Notifications, Direct Messages, Explore, Bookmarks, Lists and more. The site also features an expanded, more inbox-like Direct Messages screen where you can view and respond to conversations in one place; plus easy profile switching, support for more themes, advanced search and other features.

The popular dark modes, Dim and the very black Lights Out mode, are now supported along with more ways to personalize Twitter through different themes and color options.

But the most noticeable change is the organization and layout of the Twitter home screen itself.

Below: the old

Screen Shot 2019 07 15 at 11.03.41 AMBelow: the new

Twitter Web Dark Mode2

The update is designed to make it easier to move around Twitter. Before, you’d have to click on your Profile icon to access features like Lists, Themes, Settings and other options. Meanwhile, getting to Moments was available both in this Profile drop-down menu and in the main Twitter navigation at the top of the screen, next to Notifications and Messages.

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Now, Moments is being downgraded to the “More” menu in the redesign — as seen in a test running earlier this summer — and Explore instead gets the top billing. As on mobile, Explore will direct users to more live videos and personalized local moments, says Twitter. This is also where you’ll find Top Trends, while Personalized Trends will be featured on the right-hand sidebar on the home screen (see above).

In addition, Twitter finally brought the more than year-old Bookmarks feature to the desktop’s main navigation.

With the update, the new navigation menu includes: Home, Explore, Notifications, Messages, Bookmarks, Lists, Profile and More — the latter, a menu where you’ll find things like Moments, Twitter’s ad tools, Settings and other features.

The new Compose feature has been slightly tweaked as well, with options to include a photo, GIF, poll or emoji now all in the bottom left — with the emoji button now swapping in for the location button, following Twitter’s decision to make sharing precise location less of a priority, given its lack of use.

Though the new home screen is arguably better-organized, the navigation text itself and the amount of screen real estate it takes up is overly large.

This detracts somewhat from the main content — the tweets themselves — because your eye is naturally drawn to the oversize navigation labels at first, not the posts flowing in the timeline. This also can be a jarring change to get used to for longtime users. (Good thing there’s a new Mac desktop app on the way.)

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If you really can’t stand the navigation labels’ size, you can make the webpage smaller, which then hides the text labels of the navigation items, leaving only their icons. This, unfortunately, isn’t all that useful if you like to keep Twitter open in a tab alongside all your other tabs. It works better if you pop out into its own window.

The navigation changes were likely a design choice Twitter made, in part, to simplify the use of its product by more casual users and newcomers.

The company has struggled with user growth throughout its history, even changing how it reports metrics to paint a better picture of its business. Now, you’d have to be almost completely web illiterate to not find your way around the new But only time will tell what effect this has on growing its user base.

Not all the changes will be as controversial as the new layout, though.

For example, the now double-paned Direct Message section is more welcome as it makes using Messages feel more like the real inbox it often is — with the message list on the left and conversations on the right.

Search got an update, as well, which puts tabs for moving between “Top,” “Latest,” “People,” “Photos” and “Videos” at the top of the screen, with Advanced Search Filters to the right.

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And for those with multiple Twitter accounts, you can now switch between them from the main navigation. That’s helpful.

Twitter’s tests of the updated design had been rolling out to more people throughout the year — it even tried two different versions for a time. Throughout this process, the company incorporated some of the user feedback it received. For example, the changes to the Messaging screen and the high priority given to Bookmarks were among the requests Twitter addressed.

But generally speaking, Twitter was aiming to deliver a more consistent, seamless experience across both the phone and the web platforms with this update, a company spokesperson told us.

There’s some bad news for old-school users — as of this public launch of the redesign, there’s no option for going back to the legacy experience, as there was during the testing period.

Twitter says the upgraded look will begin rolling out globally starting today.

‘The Operators’: Understanding your user – The art and science of UI/UX behind Facebook, Google, Mint, and Edmodo

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Edmodo, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Mint, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like design and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

This week’s edition features Gülay Birand, UX Lead and Product Design Manager at Facebook, and Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo, the leading education technology company. Gülay and Tim share their experiences and explain design, UI/UX, how to build a career in these fields, and how entrepreneurs should think about them.

Gülay and Tim bring experience from other great companies including Google, Amazon, Mint, and SAP. Having seen and grown in their disciplines from a variety of companies and customer types, they share deep insight from across tech.

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Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of the world and the tech industry, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies solving serious problems, including Andela, Clearbit, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Vicarious Surgical, and Kudi.

If you’re interested in becoming a designer, doing UI/UX research, furthering your career in that field, or starting a company and don’t know when to hire or how to manage this discipline, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Edmodo, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Mint, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like design and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 3, we’re talking about design and UI/UX. Neil interviews Gülay Birand, UX Lead and Product Design Manager at Facebook, and Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo.

Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to The Operators, where we talk to the people building the companies of today and tomorrow. We publish every other Monday and you can find us online at

Today’s episode is very special, we are talking to two UI/UX experts who have designed and researched products that have been touched by billions of people. I’m your host, Neil Devani and we’re coming to you today from the Vault of Joi here at Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo, the leading classroom and education community with 100 million users globally. Also joining us is Gülay Birand, a UX lead and product design manager at Facebook.

Gülay works on the newsfeed product used by billions of people every day. Thank you for joining us, if you could tell us more about yourselves and your work it would be great to hear more.

Gülay Birand: Thank you, my name is Gülay Birand. I’m a product design manager at Facebook . I’ve been at Facebook for about three months. Prior to that I was at Google for about 8 years, and I led a horizontal team on Google Cloud Platform for about four years, leading growth and engagement, support, and product excellence initiatives.

Prior to that I did a bit of a tour to Google, so I worked on search, identity, a couple of other areas like mobile ads, and before that I was at T-Mobile where I was building mass market and franchise home experiences, mainly on Android. And prior to that I was at Amazon leading experiences for the very first Kindle, so that was a lot of fun.

Devani: And Tim tell us more about yourself and how you got here.

Tim Rechin: Yeah, so I’m currently at Edmodo, leading up design and that’s really across the entire platform that serves our teachers, students and parents in the US and globally. And before Edmodo, I was at Facebook, and I was on the Feed Ads team and responsible for the lead ads product that we launched that year. Before that I was at Mint, so doing personal finance and some of you may be using Mint.

Devani: I’m definitely using Mint, its great, I love it.

Rechin: And then before that SAP, Yahoo, eBay, and then Elance very early on which is now Upwork.

Devani: Very cool, all companies that I’ve used, products that I enjoy, thank you for helping create them.

Birand: Thank you.

Devani: So it’d be great if you could tell folks more about what you do every day. Who are the folks in your company that you are interacting with, what are your responsibilities, what does it mean to do the job that you do?

Rechin: That’s a good question, it’s a bit mixed. Just for some context, Edmodo is a company a little over 100 people and so our product teams are in the 6-7 product managers range. I lead a team of 3 designers. So my day to day is really getting to work and really trying to figure out what’s going on, so this year is a particularly busy year as we get ready for back to school.

And so we have a lot of concurrent projects going, so one of the things I like to do when I get in is level set, kind of see how my day is and I’ll go check in with the different teams. That’s part of the work I do, working with the different product teams and the strategy.

So like I said, we are working on lots of different projects, so it’s really just keeping everyone aligned and making sure that designers are delivering things on time, that any issues or gaps are being filled and we can go answer those questions that are coming from product managers and designers. In some cases too, there is a project that is about to be kicked off, so everything is not clean, phased, there are always these things that kind of pop up.

So I will find myself in meetings in talking about strategy to figure out how to kick off those projects or what our go-to-market is for back to school.

Volkswagen and Autodesk turned a vintage Microbus into a tech design showcase

Volkswagen and Autodesk teamed up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the automaker’s biggest R&D facilities with an iconic vintage VW Microbus that looks retro on the outside but packs a ton of tech on the inside, including an electric powertrain and significant weight savings afforded through use of ‘generative design.’

That’s the design practice in which designers use software to autonomously create (or ‘generate,’ get it?) designs based on input of their desired performance requirements, the materials they have available, or what they’re using in terms of manufacturing.

In this case, one of the key requirements for this retrofit was saving space and weight to make the Microbus more energy efficient. That’s what led to things like the almost organic-looking wheel design, which offer 18 percent weight savings vs. standard wheels. Similarly, the steering wheel, rear-view side mirror mounts and back bench supports sport similar, root-structure like looks that it was grown more than manufactured.

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In addition to light weight, strength and ease of construction, designers on the project say they hope that these results of generative design generally invite touch more often from users of the vehicle, which is not typically a result of utilitarian support structure design for your average car.

Engineers and designers from both Autodesk (which has also done generative design collaborations with GM and NASA JPL previously) and Volkswagen’s Innovation and Engineering Center California worked together on this project, but it’s just a show car so don’t expect to be able to buy any tree vans anytime soon.

Apple Store designer proposes restoring Notre-Dame as… basically an Apple Store

Eight Inc, the design firm best known for conceptualizing the Apple Store and the now-iconic giant glass cube on 5th Ave in New York, has proposed to restore Notre-Dame’s sadly destroyed roof and spire — with a giant glass roof and spire. I don’t think the French will go for it.

The idea is to recreate the top of the building entirely out of structural glass, which is stronger than normal glass and thus could support itself without any internal framework.

It’s hard to know what to make of the proposal. It seems to me so inappropriate that it borders on parody. Leaving aside the practical concerns of keeping the glass clean and replacing any portion that’s cracked or something, the very idea of capping a gothic cathedral made almost entirely of stone with a giant sunroof seems like the exact opposite of what the church’s creators would have wanted.

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Tim Kobe, founder of Eight, disagrees.

“I believe this definitive example of French gothic architecture requires a deep respect and appreciation of the history and intent of the original design,” he told Dezeen. “It should not be about the ego of a new architectural expression but a solution to honor this historic structure.”

I find that statement, especially the part about ego of new architectural expression, a little difficult to swallow when the proposal is to rebuild a nearly thousand-year-old cathedral in the style of an Apple Store.

He called the glass roof and spire “spiritual and luminous,” saying they evoked “the impermanence of architecture and the impermanence of life.”

That seems an odd thing to strive for. I’m not a religious person, but I as I understand it the entire idea of a cathedral is to create a permanent, solid representation of the very permanent presence of God and His everlasting kingdom of heaven. Life is fleeting, sure, but giant stone cathedrals that have outlasted empires seem a poor mascot for that fact.

Of course, it must be said that this wouldn’t be the only garish glass structure in the city that traditionalists would hate: The pyramid at the Louvre has attracted great ire for many years now. And it’s much smaller.

The French Senate (and many others) have expressed that they would like the cathedral to be restored to as close to its original state as possible — preferably with something better than centuries-old dry tinder holding up the roof. But President Macron has called for something more than simple reconstruction, and Prime Minister Philippe backs him, especially concerning the spire, which was a relatively late addition and as such isn’t quite as historic as the rest.

A design competition is to be held to create a new spire “adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era,” which certainly could mean many things and inspire many interesting ideas. Here’s hoping they’re a little better than this one.

Move over Ready Player One — the future of AR might be in furniture

Last week Modsy, a San Francisco-based startup raised a large amount of funding – $37 million in C-round funding to be precise. And that followed a $23 million series B round in December 2017.

Why the large amounts I hear you ask? Well, Modsy is developing a platform that lets property owners create virtual renderings of rooms and restyle them in real time. So that means 3D automation, plus virtually positioning furniture items, combined with a marketplace where you can buy the items. Modsy’s tech replicates rooms in 360 degrees, with furniture from dozens of well-known brands. It’s a powerful combination.

The move shows that AR/VR technologies are now finding their place, not in a ‘Ready Player One’ style future but in the more mundane, but lucrative area of interior design.

But there’s another company out there that claims to have reached 40 million users with far more modest funding.

Planner 5D is a design tool that lets you create floor plans and interior designs using VR and AR. But its approach is different.

It first learns about how the house is used and then automatically creates a design. The startup claims its users have already designed more than 80 million projects without requiring any special design or software skills.

The software allows users to add rooms and floors in 3D, choose furniture and other objects from a catalog of over 4,500 items, and customize the materials, colors, and dimensions of the interior items and rooms. The AR aspect is used for capturing the dimensions of real rooms, while switching to VR lets you walk through the interiors virtually.

But homes are just the start. Founded in 2011 by Alexey Sheremetyev and Sergey Nosyrev in Lithuania, with backing from investor Igor Matsanyuk and Farminers Academy, Planner 5D plans to apply its AI features to home planning, robotics, scene-understanding, and more.

In the meantime, it’s easy to see why apps like this are taking off. The average interior design costs for a US homeowner are between $2000 and $8300, so using these apps can be a huge cost saving.

While Modsy and Planner 5D battle it out in this space, they are not the only apps available.

Users have a bewildering range to try. Pottery Barn’s 3D Room View app lets you put new furniture items in your home, while companies like Wayfair, IKEA and Houzz also have augmented reality solutions to allow customers to try out furniture in situ.

But while retailers try to lift sales with these apps, the likelihood is that the average consumer will not want several branded apps on their phone, when one app can do most of the heavy lifting and give direct access to furniture brands or retailers.

Then there is also the different approaches taken by these apps. Typically, retailer apps will just place an item of furniture in a room. Modsy will render an entire room, but take a couple of days to do it, though it’s latest funding will help speed that up. Planner 3D doesn’t render the room, but builds a scene based on dimensions, in a faster process.

Whatever methodology a tech company uses, all of these apps are sure to benefit. A survey Modsy took of its customers found that 80% plan to buy based on the rendered design.

When apps are connected with marketplaces, as Planner 3D and Modsy are, this means potentially huge revenues for these startups, and of course, the large rounds of venture funding we’ve seen to date.

These ‘microbe-grown’ headphones could be the future of sustainable electronics

The culture of planned obsolescence in electronics produces a huge amount of toxic waste unlikely to go anywhere but a landfill for the next millennium or so. Nature produces some of the strongest and most versatile substances we’ve ever encountered, so why not use them instead? That’s what Finnish design house Aivan has attempted with this concept pair of headphones made from fungus, bioplastics, and other natural materials.

The idea was to replace everything they could with naturally-derived materials, of which there’s a great variety — but some can be a bit difficult to get your hands on.

As Dezeen reports, the Korvaa headset, everything you see here is natural in origin, although that doesn’t mean they just picked it up in the forest.

The main structure of the headphones is 3D-printed, using a bioplastic created as a byproduct of yeast processing lactic acid. The polylactic acid polymer is strong but flexible enough to be used as the crown and cup shell.

The padded earpieces are made from a protein known as hydrophobin that, like artificial foam, is made up of many tiny bubbles — but these are produced by a fungus and reinforced with plant cellulose. They’re covered with mycelium, another fungus-derived material that’s leathery and flexible.

And on top of those would be a mesh created by spinning out synthetic spider silk — something Bolt Threads is trying to do at scale for ordinary garments.

To be clear, these headphones don’t work — they’re just a prototype or concept product right now. But the point wasn’t to create a fully functioning replacement for your existing headphones. Rather the idea is to show that those headphones don’t need to be made, as they are now, entirely of non-biodegradable materials.

“This was certainly only a surface scratch into where biology-engineered materials are going, and what we can do with them in the future,” one of the group’s designers, Thomas Tallqvist, told Dezeen.

The headphones will be on display at a couple design shows in Finland — here’s hoping someone from Audio Technica or Sennheiser drops by and gets inspired.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Milkinside

Gleb Kuznetsov refuses to settle for less. After spending years leading product design for startups and corporate clients, Gleb started a boutique branding agency, Milkinside, that helps clients translate new technologies into useful products.

Gleb and his team of experienced creators are committed to serving the end user, which is why they love taking products from zero to launch. Their services are expensive, partly due to their expertise in product development, motion graphic design and animation, but we spoke to Gleb about why Milkinside is more than just a branding agency and how they strive to be the best.

Why Gleb created Milkinside:

“I wanted to create a team that wasn’t just an agency that companies could contract, but a partner that would support the client’s product development from beginning to end. Everything from the product narrative, product branding, product design, UI user experience, motion design, design languages, motion design languages, etc. I looked around the industry and didn’t see what I was envisioning so I created my dream company, Milkinside, in 2018.”

“Gleb has one of those rare skills that can make ordinary, plain parts of a design come to life and doing so in a beautiful and useful way. Always pushing the boundaries.” Jacob Hvid, Stockholm, Sweden, CEO and Co-founder at Abundo

On common founder mistakes:

“There are a lot of founders who believe they created useful technology and are absolutely certain people will use it. But everything is moot if users aren’t able to understand your product narrative and how it fits into their lives. Establishing a product narrative at an early stage is essential. A lot of founders will try to create a minimum viable product as soon as possible, but they aren’t thinking about the narrative, branding, the product design, and how everything comes together.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.

Interview with Milkinside Founder and Director of Product Design Gleb Kuznetsov

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the world of branding and design?

Gleb Kuznetsov: I was 10 years old when I started programming and learning different coding languages. At the age of 15, I shifted to design and became pretty passionate about what could be possible in the digital world. I worked as a product designer for 15 years before I started Milkinside. I worked for big consumer product companies across various verticals and platforms. When I was a chief design officer at a startup, I was responsible for everything from the product design, UI design, branding, advertising to producing product explainer videos.