Interview with Shifd Creators: Nick Bilton and Michael Young, Pt. I

At our recent London Hack Day, Nick Bilton and Michael Young of the New York Times Research & Development Lab walked away with the top award ("Best Overall Hack") for their mobile/desktop synchronization and toggling solution: Shifd.

In the first part of this interview, we followed up with these two to talk a bit more about their backgrounds, what's next from the Times R&D Lab, what lured them to Hack Day and more.

Q: Can you give us a little background info on yourselves?

Nick Bilton: I'm an Art Director, User Interface Designer, Technologist, Writer, Video Journalist, Photographer, Nick-of-all-trades... Master of some. I've also got a bit of a problem with gadgets, and have been known to wait outside in the cold at 6 a.m. to acquire new releases of certain products. I've worked in numerous different industries within the contexts of design and technology. Currently my time is shared between The New York Times newspaper where I'm involved in special editorial projects and the visual integration of the newspaper and website. The other half of my time is spent as the User Interface Specialist at The New York Times Research & Development Lab. I was also the co-designer of the Times Reader.

Michael Young: I'm a Creative Technologist in the Research & Development Lab at The New York Times. I've been at The NYTimes for a little over a year now, focusing primarily on building new mobile applications and exploring a vast array of new areas such as the 'digital living room.' I also spend a lot of my time trying to figure out why Nick calls himself the "Nick-of-all-trades." I hail from the West coast (Oregon) and worked at a few interactive TV startups in San Francisco before moving out to New York about six years ago.

Q: What brought you to The New York Times R&D Lab? What do you do there?

NB: I started working in the web and digital multimedia world in 1995 and floated in and out of different digital contexts since. I have been at The New York Times for about 3 years and began my career here as the Art Director for The New York Times Business & Circuits Section. I was then assigned to work with Microsoft as the User Interface Designer on the Times Reader; the NYTimes version of a digital newspaper that can be synced to your computer or tablet PC and is similar to the news reading devices people used in the movie 'Minority Report.' When there was rumors of the R&D Lab opening up within the company I jumped at the chance to get involved as it would allow me the opportunity to work on a variety of different skill sets including hardware hacking, design and user interface, video and flash, coding, and our pet project -- news reading helicopter robots. (We're kidding about the helicopters, but that would be pretty neat!)

MY: I was working for an interactive TV company called OpenTV prior to joining The NYTimes, where I was building ITV applications for networks like CNN, ESPN, NBC, etc. I've always been a huge fan of The Times and they had just started the R&D group when I was looking to change jobs. A month prior to interviewing at The Times, I had created a very simple mashup that displayed AP news stories on a map, using both the Google Maps API and Yahoo! Geocoding API. (I wanted to learn both APIs at the same time.) Anyway, the mashup got a little coverage in the press and helped me get in the door for an interview at The Times.

I'm working on a variety of projects in the R&D group, primarily around mobile and ways we can make the paper more interactive through mobile devices. Another area I'm starting to look at is the idea of the 'digital living room' and where our place is in that.

Q: The New York Times R&D Lab sounds like an exciting playground for new technology and applications. Aside from the digital paper prototypes that are surfaced every year or so by the futurists, what types of projects do you tackle?

You can clearly see that in the next few years we will live in a world with ubiquitous WiFi and most Americans will have a broadband-enabled mobile device, that will not only connect you to the Internet, but connect will be location aware. That's a pretty exciting prospect, especially from a news and content delivery standpoint. We're currently working on a wide array of projects including GPS, mobile -- including location aware delivery, 2-D barcodes (semacodes) and SMS -- Analytics and Search. We're also exploring all types of eInk devices, tablet PC's and foldable screens while trying to figure out how our content will be delivered to these different devices and screen sizes. Another area we are starting to dabble in is news delivery on gaming consoles and TV set top boxes.

Q: How did you hear of the London Hack Day? What lured you across the Atlantic for the event?

We've been following what Yahoo! has been doing with their internal Hack Days for the past few years and have been really been inspired by the idea. (We are actually hoping to do one internally at NYTimes.) I forget where we first saw mention of the London Hack Day, but it was on either Chad Dickerson's or Tom Coates' blog. The London trip worked out great for us -- it's not too far of a trip from New York and it gave us the opportunity to meet with some other news organizations while we were out there.

Q: How did the Hack Day event meet your expectations? (What did you expect?)

We were really surprised and excited by how organized Hack day was Yahoo! and the BBC really took care of all of the hackers. Free food and beer tickets -- couldn't beat it. We really didn't have much of an idea what we were going to see when we arrived, and we were chuffed and excited when we walked into a room of 500 super nerds. It was really inspiring to see all of the hacking going on around us -- so much creativity in one room!

We'll post the second part of this interview tomorrow, covering their idea, how they conceived and executed it, what's next for Shifd, and more.

Micah Laaker