Territory Studio creates the biggest mass market spectacles that can never fit in your pocket. It’s a visual effects design studio with a very particular talent, building the futuristic heads-up displays we see in movies like Blade Runner 2049, The Martian, or The Avengers: Infinity War. The company tells Hollywood what the future of computing will look like.
Now, the firm’s San Francisco arm has released its first real product in partnership with the wearable tech company Huami: A series of sci-fi-worthy watch faces for the recently released Amazfit Verge smartwatch (which runs about $116 in China).
The bright, wiry interfaces could have been lifted straight out of Iron Man’s own helmet, with data visualizations firing across the screen like lasers. That was very much by design. “What [Huami] wanted from us was to apply a less restricted approach when it comes to graphics. They wanted to be different [from competitors],” says Marti Romances, a partner at Territory. “They know Apple and Samsung are keeping it very safe… For us, the approach was to do whatever we want. Don’t follow any rules. We can go crazy.”
The first design is called Rings. It fits your steps, calories burned, and batteries into concentric circles. The second is called Salkan. It sneaks the user’s last six to eight hours of activity into a tiny line graph on the face, condensing a day of activity into mere millimeters. The final face is Spiked. At first, it appears to be beautiful, pink-and-blue nonsense. In fact, it’s a real-time visualization of the left ventricle and right atrium contracting during your heartbeat, gathered from your pulse. It’s data overkill, but Romances views it as a responsibility to bring that information forward to the user. “The precision the [watch] achieves, technologically speaking, [is such that] it’d be a waste if we can’t visualize it somehow,” he says. “We have that information, why are we not playing with it?”
Most industrial design and interface design results from the assumption that form follows function; it makes sense that an object is shaped by the way it’s going to be used. Territory operates in exactly the opposite direction. The team comes up with graphics it likes first, then considers how data might be mapped to those visuals. “That way we can disrupt a little bit more,” says Romances. “If you start with restrictions, you’ll never get to the two to three new avenues you can if you start with a different thought process. So let’s start with what we really like, then figure it out.”
Territory learned to operate fluidly when collaborating with Marvel’s film directors and production managers. The firm needs to find an aesthetic that fits the film’s overall vision first and foremost. Only then can they give logic to the interface they’ve drawn. Yes, it runs counter to how designers usually work, putting the user first, but Romances believes Territory’s backwards approach could eventually lead to UI breakthroughs.
At a more minute level, Territory Studio’s product work in Silicon Valley better informs its film work for Hollywood, and vice versa. “There’s lots of work we’ve done with products, but it’s always been on the concept phase, things we can’t talk about,” says Romances, alluding to work the company had recently completed for an augmented reality contact lens. “That, to me, sounds crazier than a script from Marvel. But that’s the beauty of it.”