The Cambrian Explosion in Software and Content

How Low Code & No Code Unlock Creation

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The Cambrian Explosion in Software and Content

I fell in love with tech through movies. More specifically, I fell in love with tech through how movies get made—by learning about what goes on behind the scenes to create movie magic. How did they make the T-Rex for Jurassic Park? How did they do the bullet dodging in The Matrix? How did Mary Poppins merge live-action and hand-drawn animation for the dancing penguins scene?

(The answers: a combination of hydraulics and CGI; 120 still cameras each capturing a different angle; and a new technique called sodium vapor processing.)

Growing up, my brother and I spent our Saturday mornings devouring footage of how Peter Jackson created Middle Earth for The Lord of the Rings, available on the 15 DVDs (!) that came with the LOTR Extended Edition box set 🤓 The effects were all done by Weta Digital, Jackson’s New Zealand-based visual effects company. Weta pioneered technologies for The Lord of the Rings that are now widespread in moviemaking.

To create the computer-generated character Gollum, for instance, Weta used motion capture with the actor Andy Serkis.

Weta has continued to hone its face capture technology over the years, using it for the Na’vi in Avatar and for the apes in Planet of the Apes. My favorite is the footage of Benedict Cumberbatch filming his scenes as Smaug the Dragon in The Hobbit.

For The Lord of the Rings, Weta also created a software called MASSIVE, which stands for Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment. Instead of having to animate each character individually, the crew could use MASSIVE to create big crowds with individuals that act independently. MASSIVE was used extensively in battle scenes for The Lord of the Rings films.

A modified version of MASSIVE was later used to bring to life the flora and fauna of the planet Pandora in Avatar.

For 2005’s King Kong, Weta created a software called CityBot that could digitally render any city. CityBot was used in the film to create 1933 New York City for the climactic Empire State Building scene.

Other examples of Weta technologies include: Wig, a simulation and modeling software for how fur moves, used in King Kong and Planet of the Apes; Lumberjack, a tree creation system used to digitally render vast forests; and Tissue, which maps how computer-generated characters should move by imagining how their tissues and ligaments would behave.

Tissue allows hyper-realistic movements for CGI characters by simulating how their tissues and ligaments should behave, then working outwards

Last week, Weta Digital announced that it’s being bought by Unity for $1.6 billion—Unity’s biggest acquisition ever. In a statement, Peter Jackson wrote:

“Weta Digital’s tools created unlimited possibilities for us to bring to life the worlds and creatures that originally lived in our imaginations. Together, Unity and Weta Digital can create a pathway for any artist, from any industry, to be able to leverage these incredibly creative and powerful tools.”

“Democratized” is an overused word, but it also captures one of the best parts of technology—when sophisticated tech is made accessible for anyone to use, opening the floodgates of creativity. Weta’s CEO put it best: “We’re Jimi Hendrix, and we’re selling guitars. We think this world has many, many more Jimi Hendrixes.” How much talent can be unlocked by putting tools in the right hands?

In The Creator Manifesto, I shared the framework we use at Index to think through the broader creator economy: (1) Creation Tools, (2) Distribution, and (3) Monetization. In other words, how we make stuff, how we share that stuff, and how we get paid. This week, I want to focus on the first piece—Creation Tools.

In software, we’ve seen the rise of the “low code / no code” movement.

There are shockingly few software developers in the world—only about 26.9 million. That’s 0.3% of the world. As we become a digital species, with 4.5 billion people now online, we rely more and more heavily on this small slice of the population.

I think of developers as a subset of creators—creators with a specialized technical skillset. Traditionally, the tools for building with software have been inaccessible. What’s exciting about low code / no code is how the movement crowds in creation. Microsoft expects 500 million apps to be built in the next five years—more than have been built in the past 40 years. Of those 500 million, 450 million are expected to be built with low code / no code tools.

“Low code” and “no code” are often lumped together, but they’re very different things. In programming, hand coding means typing out code manually. At its core, low code minimizes hand coding, while no code eliminates it altogether. This means that low code is for developers and more technical business users, while no code doesn’t require any technical expertise. While both use many of the same drag-and-drop interfaces, no code is more rigid and limited.

What low code effectively does is supercharge developers. Take Retool, which helps companies build internal tools. A company doesn’t want its valuable engineering resources going toward internal tooling; developers are expensive, and you want them working on customer-facing applications.

Say that every week at your company, it’s someone’s job to pull together a deck of the week’s key metrics. Every Friday, that poor person (or, more likely, multiple poor persons) is forced to spend hours refreshing SQL queries and Google slides. Retool could help spin up a tool to automate that process, saving everyone hours of work each week.

With low-code tools, a developer might contribute some hand coding to get things over the finish line. But these tools vastly decrease the amount of time and engineering resources needed to build something. Those 26.9 million developers can get a lot more done.

No code tools, on the other hand, are slightly less robust in what they can do, but they allow more people to be developers. Someone with no technical background can build something that would otherwise require specialized skills. Bubble, for instance, is more no code than low code. Bubble lets anyone create web apps (mostly consumer-facing) with zero programming knowledge.

No code, in particular, removes the bottleneck of limited engineering resources.

The framework of low code / no code for software development can be extended to content creation.

Elegant, accessible tools are making it easy for almost anyone to create professional-looking content. Weta Digital, for instance, will work with Unity to give everyone powerful tools once limited to filmmakers with multi-million-dollar budgets. Soon, you can use MASSIVE or CityBot or Lumberjack at home.

This trend is decades in the making. Back in 2015, Steven Johnson wrote in The New York Times:

The cost of consuming culture may have declined, though not as much as we feared. But the cost of producing it has dropped far more drastically. Authors are writing and publishing novels to a global audience without ever requiring the service of a printing press or an international distributor. For indie filmmakers, a helicopter aerial shot that could cost tens of thousands of dollars a few years ago can now be filmed with a GoPro and a drone for under $1,000; some directors are shooting entire HD-­quality films on their iPhones. Apple’s editing software, Final Cut Pro X, costs $299 and has been used to edit Oscar-­winning films. A musician running software from Native Instruments can recreate, with astonishing fidelity, the sound of a Steinway grand piano played in a Vienna concert hall, or hundreds of different guitar-­amplifier sounds, or the Mellotron proto-­synthesizer that the Beatles used on ‘‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’’ These sounds could have cost millions to assemble 15 years ago; today, you can have all of them for a few thousand dollars.

This is pretty remarkable. And it continues to hold true: Parasite, the 2020 Best Picture winner, was cut on Final Cut Pro. Tools progressively get more affordable and more accessible, crowding in more creation.

Take TikTok. I made this graphic 18 months ago now, but it still works:

YouTube was revolutionary, but left barriers to creation: (1) the money to invest in expensive tools, and (2) the knowledge of how to use those tools. TikTok removed those barriers with no-code-like tools, leveling the playing field. The result is that 1 in ~1,000 people on YouTube create content, while closer to 60% of TikTok users create.

What’s exciting is how people can build component parts, and then other people can assemble new creations using those atomic units. This is true for both software and content.

Airtable, where I used to work, offers Apps that act like software legos. Users can build by combining different Apps, both those made by Airtable and those made by third parties on Airtable App Marketplace.

On the content side, content creators can similarly assemble pieces to make something new. Lil Nas X bought the beat to “Old Town Road”—the longest-running #1 hit in history—for $30 on BeatStars, a marketplace to buy and sell beats.

Splice is a product that lets artists buy royalty-free bits and pieces of music, and then remix those bits and pieces into new songs. The makers of those components can even earn a living selling their creations on Splice. Kara Madden spent years trying to make it as a singer after moving to LA, only to find herself managing a Jersey Mike’s and making under $10K singing on My Little Pony commercials. Then, she uploaded a pack of vocal hooks to Splice and quickly made $300,000.

Her vocal pack includes wordless melodies and hooks like “don’t wanna wake up” and “loving you”. Other artists use her samples to make their own original songs, and Madden (who goes by KARRA as an artist) gets paid for her contributions. Splice has paid out $40 million to artists and is mainstream: Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, BTS, and The Weeknd have all used sounds from Splice in their music.

Gaming, like music, leans into building with digital legos. Overwolf, as an example, is a platform for creating, sharing, and monetizing in-game apps and mods. In gaming, modding is the process by which players alter (“modify”) how a game looks or acts. Overwolf lets creators share what they make and earn income doing so. This year, Overwolf will pay out $29 million to mod and app creators.

I also expect Web3 to start playing a role in creation.

The digital assets built within game worlds will live on-chain, meaning that they can be more easily traced and monetized. Imagine I develop a game, and then you create a digital asset (say, a suit of armor) to sell in that game. On the blockchain, using smart contracts, you and I can capture the secondary sales of that suit of armor as it gets sold and resold again and again. For instance, the game developer (me) might get 5% of all future secondary sales and the digital asset creator (you) might get 10%; the seller gets the other 85%. This same construct can extend to music, video, software development, memes, and virtually every other category of creation.

This is a revolutionary concept. Digital economies will become more vibrant and lucrative, attracting more developers and creators. Tools will emerge to make it easier to build things in these virtual worlds, and jobs like “digital fashion designer” or “digital architect” will become popular jobs to have.

Final Thoughts

The arc of creative tools bends toward accessibility. A tool might start out as cost-prohibitive or as requiring specialized knowledge, but those barriers erode over time. I’ve written about how The Technician uses the Unreal Engine and a $30,000 motion-capture suit to create Miko. Now, she’s building Mikoverse to let anyone do what she does. Even being a vTuber (virtual YouTuber) will become easy!

It will be interesting to see what Unity does with Weta Digital. Unity is one of the most successful creative tools out there—over half of all mobile games are built with Unity’s game engine. My hunch is Weta will become more accessible, but will still fit in the “low code” camp. Unity itself is low code—you need to know C# to use it.

For both software and content, we’ll see tools continue to get more accessible. New companies will be built in all four quadrants here:

Low-code-like tools will allow developers and creators to make things faster, augmenting the specialized skills they have. No-code-like tools will allow more of us to be developers and creators in the first place.

Best-in-class creative tools will continue to push the boundaries of what can be created and who can create, leading to a Cambrian explosion of software and content.

Sources & Additional Reading

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