A robot roamed the floors of a downtown office building in Santa Cruz on a recent Friday afternoon, toting the smiling face of Carmen Palacios, a young professional.
As the sleek, white bot—which had a tablet attached to what would be its head—turned and spun into a nearby room, I jogged after it. Because everyone knows that humans can always trust anything that looks like a smartphone on steroids.
Inside the office was an open house for Litmus Box, where I was greeted by JT Mudge, the chief innovator and president for the small digital engagement company. Palacios, the company’s project manager, sat on a couch with a joystick, operating the robot, which the company uses for video conferencing. Around the room, techies and office neighbors mingled, while admiring some of Litmus Box’s displays.
The company launched 10 years ago, led by Mudge, who recently returned from a job in Silicon Valley to lead it once more. It consults with clients on digital trends, develops new tech tools and builds “experience labs” to let companies test out new design ideas.
In collaboration with a few partners, Litmus Box has its fingerprints on digital kiosks, websites and even some virtual reality features. Some of its projects are confidential. Others are prototypes.
When I come back for a tour, four large, thin monitor screens near the wall are spinning kaleidoscopic, colorful designs.
Mudge stands in front of the screen and turns the pinwheels by waving his hands in midair. When he opens and closes his hands, it switches to a different kaleidoscopic display. He isn’t sure how Litmus Box will use it yet, but it’s cool.
The essence of a tech company in the year 2017 is creative minds at play. Oftentimes, that’s exemplified by Google, where employees bicycle from work to a yoga class around the behemoth’s art-filled campus, and it’s also where workers are famously—at least, in theory—encouraged to spend about a fifth of their time working on projects outside their normal job description.
With only four employees, including Mudge and Palacios, it might sound hard for Litmus Box employees to spend any time freewheeling. But some of their projects look like an awful lot of fun.
From inside their office at the University Town Center, Mudge and Palacios gaze down at the “Surfin’ Bird” mural on Cooper Street. They bat around the idea of approaching city staffers about putting a projector in the window to cast images down on the mural—maybe for First Friday. Perhaps they can project the image of a squirrel scurrying up a tree in the picture or a UFO flying overhead.
“It’d be fun,” Mudge says.
“And it’s engaging,” Palacios says. “Maybe people aren’t physically touching it, but they’re engaged and paying attention, and that’s what it’s all about.”