Video:Touching, waving at and talking to the future with Microsoft
Last month, I spent an extraordinary few days over in Redmond, Washington State to visit the research headquarters. It wasn’t just that I saw some extraordinary technology, although I did, what was really extraordinary was the access we were granted and the frankness of what people said.
Microsoft are a strange sort of company. Once the name that defined technology, it has in many ways been eclipsed by rivals Apple and Google. Although the company is still extraordinary profitable, investors don’t rate its growth potential as highly as rival Apple, partially because of a failure until recently to launch a decent mobile offering. But that started to change with the launch late last year of Windows Phone 7 and the company have also started to make waves, literally, in the world of gesture based technology with the launch of the hugely successful Kinect for X-box.
So Microsoft is fighting back and not just in terms of new products. In the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, they’ve opened up a prototype ‘Microsoft Store’ that bear all the hallmarks of the hugely popular ‘Apple Stores’ right down to the friendly greeters saying ‘hi’ on your way in. When we visited it, there were more people inside than the Apple store a couple of doors down, probably reflecting the reality, all to often missed by the markets and the media that vastly more people actually use Microsoft products than use Apple. At some point in the day, most of us will either use or be provided a service by someone using a Microsoft powered device.
Microsoft rarely give television journalists as much access to their research labs as we were granted earlier this year. It was clear from what I saw that the future is going to be very much based around gesturing, touching and talking to technology rather than pushing buttons or playing with a mouse. Technology is in effect going to become invisible and merge into the environment in a way we haven’t seen before. This might have significant cultural impact, as we will be using technology in such a seamless way, we may stop to consider it as technology itself. It will also make it more accessible to those uncomfortable with traditional technology, as I witnessed when my Grandmother, a technophobe, took to the X-Box Kinect so well that she managed to beat me in a Lady Gaga dance-off on national television!
Inside Microsoft’s prototype home of the future I can’t remember actually seeing any buttons or knobs. Instead, the kitchen was controlled via voice and gestures, information was projected onto the work surfaces ambiently rather than being ghettoised onto a screen. Inside the bedroom of the future, I came face to face with digital wallpaper, that can be changed at the flick of a hand (again no button) to suit either the occupant or your mood.
A lot this type of technology has been used in the X-Box Kinect, a sensor based system that ‘sees’ your body movements and replicates them on-screen, allowing you to effectively ditch the old fashioned controller. Microsoft have shipped more than 8 million of the devices since their launch little more than two months ago.
Researchers at Microsoft are now trying to take this technology to the next level with a prototype called ‘LightSpace’ that combines projectors with Kinect sensors to create something rather like the screens we saw Tom Cruise use in the ‘Minority Report’. I was shown a table with a load of ‘objects’ on it- essentially photographs and videos. I was then able to pull them off the table and into my hand, where they turned into a ball of light. This ball has the same properties as a regular ball, it can be rolled from hand to hand and from person to person. Then I was able to throw the ball onto a wall, causing the objects to jump from my hand to the other surface. Sounds a little complicated? Watch the video and it will make sense!
Now this was pretty cool technology but the researchers didn’t know how it could be turned into a real product to make money for Microsoft. In a sense for them it doesn’t matter. There are 850 researchers at Microsoft investigating the future, more researchers than at any other technology company in the world. Their task is meerly to think about what’s possible, build prototypes and leave it to others to make money out of it. This is where the Kinect was born so it can make money, but in other cases the projects are junked or taken up by rivals. We were shown a prototype for a social network that pre-dates Facebook, but it was never publicly launched. The key for Microsoft is to now ensure they get the right products to market before anyone else.
One product that will be coming out shortly is the Microsoft Surface 2. Think of it as a giant iPad that can be hung on the wall or used as a coffee table. The old version was a huge clunky affair, using video projectors. The new Surface is truly impressive. It’s an LCD screen where every pixel is also a camera, the screen actually can see you. This means that rather than just the two fingers you can use to control an iPad, you can use hundreds of fingers (obviously you’ll need the hands of your friends) to use the device.
At the moment, you’re going to most likely come face to face with Surface 2 in a bar or a bank, but the same technology is likely to be behind Microsoft’s rival to the Apple iPad, a new tablet or Slate operating system due out later this year.