On Our North Star: A Conversation with CEO, Kevin Johan Wong
Sep 18, 2020
As an intern here at Origami Labs, and I have a fun time working with some of the most eager problem solvers in Hong Kong. One of the activities I’ve enormously enjoyed is nonsensical conversations during Office Hours with Kev, who’s also known as the co-founder and CEO of Origami Labs.
I wanted to throw around his north-star of being “screen-free.” This is what he said first.
Kev: The first thing to understand about being screen free, is essentially like living in the mountains. Screen free is not necessarily a technological solution, it can also be a life behavior. It is interesting. To me, the more interesting part is specifically, how can you stay productive? How can we stay creative, and work hard, but also screen-free?
You may be able to go screen free, but lose productivity. So you lose something. But if your objective is to achieve or do something, how can we live in a way that abstaining is not the only option?
Me, thinking: He’s totally right. As someone who recently experienced a traumatic brain injury a couple weeks ago, I had to completely leave my devices behind, for a short period, at least. I definitely lost productivity, and slid backwards, in that sense. The question I, too, kept asking was: how can I live without my phone, all the while without losing my creativity and productivity?
Me: Agreed! Well, in your blog post, you wrote that “Our first hard lesson was that the screen-free world must interact with the screen-based world in order to add value.” How did you learn this lesson over the years?
Kev: If I'm thinking about what true screen-free is, it’s actually a really weird concept. I think of it as this: the fourth right. Right now, there are three human rights: right, freedom/liberty, and ownership. I believe that there is a fourth human right. You can almost put it as: the right to be free of the mundane. Human history, and everything we’ve done, in very simple terms: push work we don’t want to do on other people. There are a lot of things we don’t like doing. Back in the day, it was farming. Some people don’t like farming, so they made other people farm. They don’t like manufacturing, so now there’s machines. We’re continually working up this ladder.
Me, thinking: Damn. I’ve never thought about it that way.
Kev: Imagine a world where true artificial intelligence existed.
Kev, continues: A machine that could interact with the real world, and it could think and operate as a human being. So, how do you- do you pay this thing? Is it a resource? The eventual accessibility is as though we are trying to create something in our own image: another human being. You can go back to child rearing. In a way, it’s the same: our technology just seems to be a manifestation of those same desires.
My dad, to give an example: he wouldn’t have as many issues if I could be by his side 24/7. There would be a lot more things I could help with, for his surroundings, if I were around him more. Then, he could focus on more things that he wants to spend time on.
In the more practical sense, the screen free versus the screen based world, has to do more with technological inclusion. Trying to build a screen-less interface, independently, by itself, at the end of the day, ends up creating something that is so niche. It ends up becoming more useless than what we initially set out a system like that to do.
Me, thinking: Yep. I wish I had some kind of other human to help me through this concussion, too…
Me: Right. What are a couple things any human person could implement in their lives to live more “screen free,” then?
Kev: As we talk about interfaces, these features are all pre-existing already. Very practically, think communication, or comms: what’s the difference between using Whatsapp on your phone, versus on your computer? The function is the same, and its persistence is the same. I don’t want a different whatsapp on my phone than on my computer. I want the device to flow across.
Let’s say you want to create a visual-less communication. You don’t want that to be a separate instance of comms. In a way, it must flow naturally from its visual-less state into the visual world. Everything that is in the audio world must flow into the visual world. They are parallel, connected, and not separate.
Me: Woah! That’s crazy! Mind = blown. Dang. Where in the world did that come from?
Kev: How did I learn that? Ha. I think it’s by using the things we created. It took me many years, and I think this is something I’m trying to define better. But, it’s through usage of other visual-less interface products, not just our own. It’s still an evolving thought.
It definitely comes in cycles. I spend a lot of time re-reading what I wrote. The sentences are sometimes the same, but my understanding of those sentences increases at a very steady rate, I might say. I often am surprised at things I wrote years ago, how close I was, but, at the time, I was only able to write the words on a page without fully understanding what it meant. Even the two words “screen-free” is such an amorphous concept: it doesn’t imply the existence of anything.
Me: So, what exactly have you been pondering recently, then?
Kev: Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about very functional things. I like using very functional questions to test how I understand something. Let’s take “Settings.” How do you imagine settings to work in a screen-free environment?
Me: Um. Well, I’d probably say something like, “Settings,” then have the artificial intelligence read out the headers by number, like this: “One: General; Two: Accessibility…” so on and so forth.
Kev: As you speak this out, you can probably see that there are limitations to this voice mode. Settings suck, in the screen-free world. That’s because, in the screen-free world, it’s a low bit-rate. It relies on the user to remember things, only one thing at once, everything has to be done in natural language processing. Settings doesn’t actually function that well in the audio, voice-interface space.
Me, thinking: How did I not think of that?
Kev: I forgot to mention that beyond this AI interface world, is a brain-based interface (the true, screen-free interface). True screen-less interfaces should be thought-to-thought. The point of the visuals is to show you something. But, what if I got you to understand without a medium? What would the point of the visual be? Other than, just for old time’s sake. Theoretically, the real screen-free is “I can just thought something into your head.”
Kev, continues: Oftentimes, I think about the term: data to AI. I’m not a huge fan of the term, but essentially it’s to say that what we’re doing today are the building blocks of a hundred. We are setting things up, in a way, and we need to spend the time to explore these spaces, and lead to the building of this true eventual interface, to those who come after us.
I definitely think on this journey, we are closer to data than we are to AI.
Me: What does screen free and accessible technology look like in the workplace? Either at home, or even at corporate jobs and offices?
Kev: I’ve been thinking a lot about hugs lately.I feel like all these tools that we currently have are really poor approximations of what humans actually want, in terms of social interaction. Do you think watching a place will be superior to going to a place?
Me: Definitely NOT! Ugh, I love to travel. Experience a place. Going somewhere beats watching a video by a gazillion miles.
Kev: Right. In the same way, our current tools and technology do not simulate well how people interact with each other. A big part of voice is: presence and emotion. How we could be typing to each other what we’re talking about, but there’s more of a human feeling to be talking to you about it. That is the human element of the conversation. Part of one of my theories is that we can integrate more of this type of human experiences into workplaces. It’s accessibility-inspired technology. It’s trying to empower the workplace to feel more human.
How can we do that? That’s still something I’m trying to figure out.
Me: I see.
Kev: Virtual consequence: what I feel one of the problems with the virtual world is that we are all shielded, in a way. A part of human interaction is to allow the shields to come down. That is a huge part in making interactions with people more meaningful.
Me: Nothing I want more in the world… Meaningful interactions fuels my fire. So, what are one or two tools, apps, or integrations that you use currently or are inspired by?
Kev: Yes, in terms of tool sets, tools or apps my ultimate tool is this: I spend a lot of time creating systems with minimal brain power and time. This permeates into everything I do.
Everything is all pre-decided, so I can focus on what I want to do. My choices fit into my programming, e.g. organized chaos. I don’t like things that are repeating. So, the systems I create and involve chaos. I work in a different place every day and every week. I have a series of complex rules that involve dictating how I’m going to sit, etc. Those variables give me a sense of variety and chaos without me having to think, or dedicate too much time, to something that is simple yet important to me: the environment to me.
Me: Right, and it ruthlessly eliminates time making petty decisions.
Kev: Yes. It very much has to do with understanding how your own brain works. Understanding that… Like, I color code almost everything: everything is organized by color. Or I’ll forget where they are.
Me: That’s amazing.
Kev: I know you might have to go… But there you go. I hope that helps!
Me, speaking: You have no idea. Thank you. This was really valuable, on all levels.