Image via Technically Philly
Philly is home to the coolest indie game developers, and this week’s Geek of the Week is no exception.
You might remember Michael Highland as one of the developers behind the sweet Philly-based iPhone game Hipster City Cycle (remember our rave review?). But that’s just one of the many awesome projects he’s been involved in. A short film Highland made as a freshman at UPenn about his addiction to videogames called “As Real As Your Life” previewed at the 2006 TED Conference.
Highland is also one Zen geek: he has studied meditation and is a trained yoga instructor. Not surprisingly, he’s worked on projects such as Deepak Chopra’s Leela. And in 2011, Highland and his friend started Futureproof, with the goal of helping people develop a healthier relationship with technology.
Sadly Highland’s leaving us – he’s landed his dream job at That Game Company in LA. (check out this crazy game prototype he made as part of his application). We can’t say we’re surprised they stole him away from us – he’s one talented dude.
We caught up with Michael before he headed off West.
Tell us more about Futureproof.
Futureproof began as a conversation between me and my friend David Siegel. We were both working as developers. And we were both just feeling super burned out from being on the computer all the time. So we started to discuss our relationship with technology in a broader sense and out of that we started kind of experimenting and seeing what we could do to improve that relationship and bring more awareness to it. Specifically, what it might mean to use technology well, not from a technical proficiency standpoint, but from the perspective of human wellness.
Where are you at with Futureproof now?
We put our full attention on it and a bunch of good stuff came out of it and since then we’ve both found new jobs, but it’s something we’re continuing to work on kind of as a hobby.
Because a lot of the stuff we were working on were things to help people use technology less, or with more moderation, it was hard to sell the stuff were making, because we couldn’t push it really hard. It wasn’t made to be addictive in the way that a lot of applications and sites kind of hook you in. So we realized it’s hard to sell moderation, or hard to make a profit from it.
One little app we did make and sell, Awareness, is a pretty cool little break timer. It’s actually free now if people want to check it out.
What about your 10,000 Years of Kindness project?
So one of the ideas that came out of Futureproof was we wanted to create an app on people’s iPhones that would be a non-information-rich alternative to email, social media, news.
It turned out that collectively, Americans alone were spending a thousand years of time on Facebook, I think every six hours. Which I think was a pretty powerful statistic. The way the app was going to work is it would allow people to offer an intention, like things they would want to see happen in the world. And then other people could meditate on those intentions.
I’ve since dropped the idea of intentions and I’ve been toying with the idea of making an app that shows you a picture of another person that’s using the app, and you can do what in Buddhism is called “loving-kindness” meditation and you wish that person well. There’s lots of research into how even though it’s such a simple act, doing that actually helps people develop more compassion and be happier. And I think I’m still planning on pursuing that once I settle into this new job and figure out what I’m doing in my weekends
You seem to incorporate a lot of spiritual elements into your projects. How did that come about?
Well, I had a couple of experiences after college. I guess sort of spiritual or religious experiences with psychedelics and with meditation, later on that just opened my eyes to the sense that there was something more going on or something that I was missing. At least I felt that way at the time.
I’ve since kind of cooled my jets on that. I’m a little bit more comfortable not knowing what’s going on, which feels healthier (laughs).
What video games do you play for fun?
I just finished Far Cry 3. It was pretty awesome. I like the big blockbuster games. I’m not an elitist about the games I play. I’ve been playing FTL [Faster Than Light] a lot, it’s an indie game. And Kentucky Route Zero I just started playing, that’s pretty cool. So, I tend to play mostly little indie games just to get a sense for what other people are doing. And every now and then I’ll play a big blockbuster game.
What makes you a geek?
Well, I definitely geek out about stuff. I guess a geek to me is someone who has passions that are important to them independent of what everyone else thinks. So, my love for video games and my interest in building them has always felt like a very personal calling.
I don’t know what else makes me a geek. I think I’m pretty geeky looking. You probably don’t think so, but in my mind, I still see myself as I looked when I was in 7th grade and went to get braces. That’s sort of like my visual image of myself. Like when Neo goes into the Matrix and he has this residual self-image. My residual self-image is me at my absolute dorkiest.
How involved are you with the Philly developer community? Sad to leave?
I was very involved for most of 2011 when I was working on Hipster City Cycle. When we were developing that – I worked on it with another friend from Penn, and we didn’t know how to make games on the iPhone at that time, so we hooked up with the developer community through Indy Hall, and met a bunch of people and went to events, just to get a feel for what other people were doing and to get feedback on the game we were making. And we got a lot of positive feedback. It eventually motivated us to expand the game and make it more than a learning project.
I’m sad to be leaving Philly. It’s very bittersweet. I’ve lived here for eight years now. I definitely have a lot to look forward to in LA, but Philly is very close to my heart, so it’s hard to leave. I wouldn’t be leaving if not for this dream job. And I if do I start my own game company, I would love to come back to Philly and open shop here.
We’ll miss you too, Michael!