One of the goals behind the Web Ninja Interview series is to talk with the web gurus behind many amazing web sites and products that don’t directly blog or speak at conferences as much.
Today we talk with Marcin Wichary. I’m a huge fan of Marcin’s work. He was behind the animated and playable Google Pac-Man logo; created the initial HTML5 fancy (shmancy) slide deck that is now an open source project; and helped with Google Instant. He also has a geek love of computer history; just as artists study the masters who came before them computer scientists should know their history. Let’s begin.
Brad Neuberg: Tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, your background, interests, and some projects you have worked on (don’t be humble!)
Marcin Wichary: I grew up in Poland. I have a master’s in computer science, and a doctorate in human-computer interaction. I created my first HTML tag in… 1995? It was probably a <P>, but that’s just a guess.
I am proud of GUIdebook, which is (was) an online gallery of graphical user interfaces. Alas, I have not had time to update it since 2006.
At Google, which I joined in 2005 as a user experience designer, I helped with various internal tools and a number of search-related initiatives, including search options, real-time search, and most recently Google Instant.
Brad Neuberg: You built the HTML5 Pac-Man Google Doodle. What’s the story behind that? Any technical things you ran into that surprised you?
Marcin Wichary: One of the Google illustrators and a good friend of mine Ryan Germick had an idea to create a first playable doodle for Pac-Man’s birthday. Since I’ve been exposed to arcade games a lot in my childhood, he reached out to me; I built a very early prototype the same night.
The biggest surprise was how much thought went into Pac-Man’s details. You’d think it’s a very simple game, but there’s so much nuance and polish in every aspect. I had to recreate all of it from scratch, and since I personally believe that it’s the details that make or break the experience, it was inspiring to see someone thinking about all that already 30 years ago.
Technically, I was sad to witness HTML5 audio not being quite ready to be used in games. (There’s actually very little HTML5 in the Pac-Man doodle.) And the infamous background caching bug in IE6 bit me so bad that no known solutions worked; I had to introduce a separate code path that didn’t use CSS backgrounds, just regular images cropped by parent divs.
Marcin Wichary: A colleague suggested I give a talk to my team about HTML5. I agreed, thinking “I’ll just find a nice list of what’s there in HTML5 and make a presentation out of it.” Turned out, there was no such list, so I had to poke around and construct one myself. It was actually an interesting process. I called it “archeology of the future” – I was looking at Web technologies that’ll ultimately span years 2000 to 2020, trying to figure out how they all fit together right now, in 2010.
In terms of choosing a medium, I’ve been making my slide decks in HTML for about a decade now. Before Keynote, it was the only way for presentations to look exactly the way I wanted (have to give credit to IE6 here for its gorgeous full-screen mode), so I felt fairly comfortable following that – but utilizing newer technologies this time around. I’ve also always enjoyed teaching by example, hence the addition of sliders that allowed direct manipulation of CSS.
I am a very hands-on, low-level kind of guy. I created my first website in FrontPage, but since then I’ve been coding everything by hand. These days it means TextMate and Safari’s excellent Web inspector. I also make a point not to reuse much of what I do, but write the same things over and over again. This allows me to learn and adapt to changing technologies. (For example, I wrote two new presentation engines since the said HTML5 presentation.)
Marcin Wichary: Get an iframe, make it tiny using CSS3 translate/scale, cover with a transparent div to intercept events, and voilà – you have a nice site thumbnail without having to create an image, upload it and worry about them getting out of sync. Of course, it also comes with terrible latency, so there you go.
color: transparent and text-shadow with 0px offset means blurry text. How is that not awesome? (Not that I can think of a use for it.)
Not sure if those are particularly clever or useful – I have an attention span of a <marquee> tag and if I do anything innovative I’m usually the first to miss it – but it’s exciting to discover new uses for things that, in and of themselves, are so brand new.
Brad Neuberg: What are some of the things you are hacking on these days (that you can talk about)?
Marcin Wichary: My main project for the past several months was Google Instant, and we just launched it, so right now I’m looking around and learning about projects. I’ll be doing some internal HTML5 advocacy, teaching and workshops – hopefully some of that will surface on HTML5rocks.com.
Brad Neuberg: Tell us about a hobby, interest, or something in your background that most people wouldn’t expect or know about.
Marcin Wichary: One thing that I feel keeps me in balance is collecting (and slowly going through) books about computing history. I probably have some 800 of them by now. My apartment filled with obsolete technology talking about another obsolete technology is a good counterpoint to living in the future at work. And, as always, the best technology stories are those about people – this keeps me focused on our users in the present as well.
Brad Neuberg: Where do you see HTML5, CSS3, SVG, etc. (i.e. the new stuff on the web) going in the next year? How about the next 3 years?
Marcin Wichary: They say nothing ages faster than today’s idea of tomorrow, and I’ve never been a good futurist. :) So I’ll give you my wish list instead.
Brad Neuberg: For folks that want to do the kinds of cutting edge things you’ve been doing and have done, what advice or resources would you give them?
Marcin Wichary: One of the first popular home video game consoles was 1977’s Atari VCS 2600. It was an incredibly simple piece of hardware. It didn’t even have video memory – you literally had to construct pixels just moments before they were handed to the electron gun. It was designed for very specific, trivial games: two players, some bullets and a very sparse background. All the launch games looked like that.
But within five years, companies figured out how to make games like Pitfall, which were much, much cooler and more sophisticated. Here’s the kicker: if you were to take those games, go back in time, and show them even to the *creators* of VCS, I bet they would tell you “Naah, it’s impossible to do that. The hardware we just put together won’t ever be able to handle this.” Likewise, if you were to take Google Maps or iPhone Web apps, take your deLorean to 1991 and show them to Tim Berners-Lee, he’d be all like “get the hell out of here.”
What I’m trying to say is: Assume nothing is impossible. It’s actually easier this way. So many times people asked me if something is doable in HTML, and my initial instinct was to say “no.” But you look around, ask around, *think* around, and there’s always a way.
Something else that took me a while to internalize: you have to accept that with Web development, anything that’s worth anything will be a hack. Not just prototyping; production code as well. That’s hard to swallow when you’re used to proper, clean, sterile programming. I’d go as far as to say if you’re working on something and you never think “what I did here is terrible; hopefully one day there will be a nicer, better way to do it,” you’ve already fallen behind.
And eventually that battery of hacks in your sleeve might make you stand above. My crude and jaded metaphor of Web development is button mashing when playing video games. Everyone hates button mashers, but working with cutting-edge Web really is flying blind a lot of the time – you’re trying out all sorts of things that sometimes don’t logically make a lot of sense. But they somehow work. If you get used to that mentality and you get familiar with those hacks, you will train your instincts to know which buttons to mash first, and give yourself more buttons as well.
Lastly, if you ask a “what if?” question and leave it unanswered, you should be ashamed. :)
Brad Neuberg: Thanks Marcin!
What kinds of questions do you have for Marcin? Ask them below!
Posted by Brad Neuberg at 6:00 am