An Interview with Joshua Walton, Principal Designer at Microsoft HoloLens

February 28, 2017

By: Godiva Reisenbichler

As part of the LAB at the Rockwell Group, Joshua collaborated with his team to create Plug-In-Play, an interactive urban-scale projection installed at San Jose City Hall. The installation invited people to interact physically and virtually with the city. (Credit: LAB at Rockwell Group)

As part of the LAB at the Rockwell Group, Joshua collaborated with his team to create Plug-In-Play, an interactive urban-scale projection installed at San Jose City Hall. The installation invited people to interact physically and virtually with the city. (Credit: LAB at Rockwell Group)


As  a principal designer at Microsoft HoloLens, Joshua Walton creates new experiences in mixed reality by blurring the line between physical and digital realms. This spring, he brought his skills to the Wind Tunnel and spent two weeks working with Concept Lab students in the VR/AR Everyday Immersions studio taught by Jenny Rodenhouse (MDP ‘15). Before joining the HoloLens team, he and collaborator James Tichenor co-founded the LAB, an interactive architecture studio, at the Rockwell Group. At MDP, Joshua shared his work and his aspirations for working with emerging technologies and connecting to the physical and the digital worlds through design.


Godiva Reisenbichler: What is the appeal and purpose of blurring the physical and the digital? What is the value of giving digital things physical qualities?

Josh Walton: The physical and digital are both real and meaningful in our lives. My hope is that in combining them we can communicate in new ways, create new experiences, and work towards more holistic modes for human living.


GR: Which technology do you think is having/will have a greater impact on how designers make work: VR or AR?

JW: I tend to think of them as a spectrum which thinks about how much of the real world we would like to incorporate at any given time. VR experiences care a lot about the position of the head and hands in space. Over time, bringing in more real world properties will let people be fully embodied in their interactions. With AR experiences, you get some of that for free because you let people use their real world. Ultimately though, I love the world. I want to build a future that helps us connect to and understand it more deeply.


GR: Is your background specifically in design and technology?

JW: I studied Interaction Design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and later got a masters in design at the Cranbrook Academy. I have always been interested in the relationship between design and technology. Many of the disciplines in design have a close relationship to the technologies that enable them. As a designer, I believe you have a responsibility to create new tools and technologies to push the field into the future. I didn’t study computer science, but I have written a lot of code and studied computer science to understand how I might relate it to the design I engage in. I want designers to be able to work with technology as freely as they might explore using a new material.


GR: Who are designers, artists, or theorists who influence you?

JW: Wow, it’s hard to know where to start on this one. I love finding pockets of design and technology work that I was unaware of. I often find that approaching a contemporary problem through the lens of how people viewed their work in another time (e.g. Futurists, Russian Constructivists, early AI researchers) leads to interesting insights. I read books from early computing and early examples of interdisciplinary/cross-disciplinary design. I also work quite a bit with taxonomies and problems of categorization so I enjoy that material. If I were to pick one influence it would be Seymour Papert who opened my mind to think about different relationships in education, technology, and identity. In terms of computing, I think about Douglas Engelbart and the “Mother of all Demos”, From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner, Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson, various projects by Vannevar Bush, Computers as Theatre by Brenda Laurel, and the amazing amount of work by Ivan Sutherland. His Sword of Damocles project from the late sixties is still an inspiration to me.

In terms of art and design influence, these change fairly consistently, but a few that have remained are Lazlo Moholy Nagy (show at LACMA right now!), El Lissitzky, Charles and Ray Eames,Barbara Kruger, Yoko Ono, and April Greiman’s use of technology as material in her design.


GR: What are some projects (personal or otherwise) that you are working on and are exciting to you?

JW: I want to continue to do projects that blur the line between the physical and virtual. For now that means mixed reality projects that incorporate more of our senses. I am also working on a book about design and code—tentatively titled 100 Ways to Move a Dot—that involves a daily practice of finding creative ways to use code to move a dot on a screen. It’s more exciting than it sounds.


GR: You mentioned that you’ve been living what some might call a nomadic lifestyle, living in an Airbnb in each new city; how does being in different contexts so often influence your process/your work? What do you like about being in L.A., and, specifically, about spending time at MDP?

JW: I feel inspired all the time because I am continuously being exposed to new situations. However that can easily degrade my ability to focus so instead of planning my time to explore I tend to schedule my work or my life task time more rigorously. L.A. is so full of life and I’ve been having a great time here visiting artists and designers. Over the last few weeks it has been unusually rainy in L.A. so I have been thinking a lot about L.A.’s relationship to nature. I wake up every morning here to hear all of these birds that I never really noticed before in my visits.

Being at MDP is particularly interesting because of the great mix of activity. In one week here I saw brainstorms between students, someone with hands drenched in paint running to the sink, donuts from a made to order donut bakery being shared, posters, videos, VR projects, MR projects, and a lot of great conversation and creativity. I love working in studios that have that kind of energy.


GR: You’ve taught courses and workshops all over the country—what would you want to teach at MDP?

JW: Well, my collaborator James Tichenor and I have been putting together a curriculum for a Ritual Design course that we are very excited about. I would love to do a course about the relationship of human sensing and design. Oh, and maybe a VR course about inhabiting art and design philosophies from history.


GR: What book(s) are you reading right now?

JW: Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, Dangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison, Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties by Fred Turner, and I just finished Workin’ It!: RuPauls’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style.


Joshua Walton (center-left) poses for a 360°group photo with the Concept Lab VR/AR Everyday Immersions students and faculty.

Joshua Walton (center-left) poses for a 360°group photo with the Concept Lab VR/AR Everyday Immersions students and faculty. (Credit: Media Design Practices)



Godiva Veliganilao Reisenbichler is a Concept Lab student from St. Louis, MO, with a background in painting and art history. Working in the domains of design and art, Godiva produces critical knowledge through visual, interactive, and written media. She is inspired by the concept of techné—a word which reveals how communication requires both technique and technology. By working with emerging technologies, she wants to anticipate the consequences (positive or negative) technology might have on people and systems You can probably find her measuring things, cutting things with laser-like precision, and drawing various descriptive cubes at one of the cutting tables in the Wind Tunnel.