Your computer’s default wallpaper was designed to be changed. Apple’s starry, galactic image? Pretty lame. Dell’s swoopy blue swatch? Thanks, but no thanks. The only image in the history of pre-loaded computer images that has deserved to remain as your background came from Windows XP in 2001. Yes, we’re talking about the idyllic, sunshiny Bliss photo taken in Sonoma County by Charles O’Rear.
As far as operating-system images go, Microsoft set itself a pretty high bar from the start—a bar, we have to admit, it’s struggled to hit again with Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Now, with the release of Windows 10 next month, Microsoft is unveiling a brand new hero image that it hopes will help redefine what the company means in 2015.
The backdrop—a glowing, blue-hued window—will be what every Windows 10 user first sees when he or she turns on the computer. It feels decidedly 2015—modern, sleek, and a little moody. If images could talk, it’d say we’re a creative, nimble company, not a bloated corporation that powers your work computer. It’s a fitting message, as the company’s big marketing push for Windows 10 is about highlighting all the stuff people can do on Windows. It wants to show that artists and creatives—not just buttoned-up 9-to-5ers—use its products to make cool stuff. As Microsoft’s creative director, Chris Ashworth, puts it: “You can only change perception by doing and showing it.”
Microsoft tapped Gmunk (a.k.a. Bradley G. Munkowitz), a production designer and artist known for his futuristic work on Tron’s opening titles, to come up with a visual way to express the company’s identity. The team started with what they had: a name and a logo. “When you think of the name of our brand, we’re lucky in the fact that it’s not an acronym or surname,” Ashworth says. “It’s actually a thing, and that’s a pretty powerful and interesting thing to play with as a creative person.”
Microsoft redesigned its logo in 2012 from a wavering four-colored graphic to a flat, skewed-perspective window. Gmunk and Ashworth knew they wanted to use the current window as a jumping-off point. They also knew that despite creating an image for a computer operating system, they didn’t want to use a computer to actually make it. The volumetric window of light you see was created in-camera using a handful of clever lighting techniques. “I actually wanted to open up the window and say what are the contents of the window?” Gmunk explains. “What exists in it? What emanates out of it? What is through this portal?”
Straight Out of Tron
Like most things that look simple, creating the image took a lot of work. The biggest challenge was recreating the exact perspective of the logo with a physical object. “We figured we could take four almost-squares, skew them in perspective and we’d have the Windows logo,” Gmunk says. “Then we realized the middle part of the logo wasn’t skewed, and it was like, ‘Oh, shit, how do we figure this out?’”
He and his team ultimately cut four squares into a piece of black poster board and used a camera-mapping technique, which involves visualizing a flat 2-D image in 3-D software, to ensure the center pane remained flat to the camera. After lining the board’s holes with a thin layer of acrylic, they projection-mapped lasers to hit the interior of the holes, catch the acrylic, and glint as they passed through.
Gmunk shot thousands of exposures on what he describes as a “crazy 50 megapixel camera,” using various visual effects like smoke, lasers, and bokeh (out-of-focus effects produced by the lens). The final image is a composite of about 10 exposures, which combine the different qualities of light to produce a sense of depth. “It looks like something straight out of Tron, and that makes me happy,” Gmunk says. “But it’s all physical, and we shot it and built it.”
Compared to Windows previous clip-art-esque main images, the glowing window does feel like the company is harkening back to a more visually exciting time. And that’s great—we hope the rest of Windows 10 follows suit. Beyond that, it’s a sign that Microsoft wants to change the the way you think about the company. A hero image is a small, but not insignificant, way to change the impression of a company you’ve known for decades. Short of that, if you don’t ditch it for your family photo right away, it’s a slight win for Microsoft.