When the word “innovation” is tossed about many may look down their nose at the company sitting on top of the high tech industry – Microsoft.
When the word “innovation” is tossed about many may look down their nose at the company sitting on top of the high-tech industry – Microsoft.
The look is not without prompting given critics’ charges that the software giant has chased innovation born from competitors such as Apple and Google. And who can forget Bill Gates’s Internet Tidal Wave memo in 1995 that ushered Microsoft into an online world already in full bloom.
But it’s not all tales of late to the party.
In fact, Microsoft planted the seeds of innovation 15 years ago when it established what has become one of its most distinguishing features, Microsoft Research (MSR). The lab has spawned innovations seen today in products from Windows Vista to Exchange Server to Xbox 360.
MSR has grown from an idea to more than 700 researchers working out of five labs around the globe with a budget of more than $250 million. MSR incubates not only futuristic ideas but young minds, having hired 700 interns worldwide this year including 250 computer science PhD candidates in Redmond alone, which is roughly 21% of all the computer science PhD candidates in the United States. It’s a program Microsoft officials say is the world’s largest PhD. internship program for computer science.
The MSR staff, however, is not just computer scientists, it includes psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and medical doctors who are tasked with pushing the envelope on state of the art technology as much or more than transferring their technology into new and existing Microsoft products.
But it is that technology transfer – from lab to shipping product -- where many companies are typically judged.
Best stuff on cutting room floor
“Technology is littered with vendors that have cool stuff in labs,” says Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research. “Microsoft as an innovator is good for creating things behind the scenes but bad at bringing them to market.”
While technology transfer is only one aspect of MSR, which has a dozen people working on that issue alone, the lab does have a laundry list of technology innovations that are part of the Microsoft product portfolio, including storage advancements used to support the backend of Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail service (formerly HotMail), Vista’s SuperFetch feature that keeps tabs on a PC’s most used applications and holds them at the ready, interactive voice response technology that makes the phone an Exchange 2007 client, and the TrueSkill ranking feature that is key to Xbox Live’s online gaming.
In addition, a new program called IP Ventures, which launched in May 2005, is licensing some of the lab’s intellectual property such as face detection/tracking and gesture-based text input to start-ups and high-growth companies, who push it out into the marketplace.
The first company to surface with a product has been Wallop, which fired up a social networking site just two months ago based on MSR technology.
Full contact R&D
“Technology transfer is a full contact sport,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president in charge of Microsoft Research and the lab’s founder. “It can happen by accident, but mostly it is hard work.”
Rashid, who came to Microsoft in 1991 from Carnegie Mellon University, says the lab’s hard work is evident in everything that represents Microsoft today.
“There are virtually no products Microsoft produces today that have not either taken technology from research, come directly out of research, or been built using the tools and technologies we've created in research,” he says.
And he says what is happening in the labs today projects what might be possible in another five to 10 years, including work on sensing technology that includes a project called the SenseCam, a sort of virtual memory.
“The idea behind SenseCam is that I can hang something around my neck that has a 180-degree lens and can take pictures of what I see,” Rashid says. “It has temperature sensors, infrared sensors and a whole bunch of stuff with the idea that it can keep track of some period of time.”
He says Microsoft is working in trials with the medical community to support memory loss patients, and talking about the implications of the technology with police and military officials.
SenseCam is only one of many projects at MSR such as the TouchLight interface, which is being developed by researcher Andy Wilson. It uses computer vision and sensing to enable new applications including gesture-based inputs that replace the mouse and keyboard.
Touchlight uses a projector and a camera to project a rectangular white box onto a tabletop. During a demonstration at September’s MSR 15th anniversary celebration, Wilson used his hands to interact with objects projected into the “desktop” such as a bouncing ball. A map was brought up and Wilson zoomed in and out and rotated the map by moving his hands on the desktop. An integrated Bluetooth-like technology called Blue Rendezvous allowed Wilson to lay a camera phone on the surface and have the pictures automatically downloaded to the computer. Wilson said the TouchLight technology could have applications for such things as video conferencing and augmented reality.
“This uses a lot of computer vision technology which we began developing 10 years ago, but as we move into the digital era we have more and more ideas how to apply computer vision,” says Dan Ling, director of Microsoft’s lab in Redmond.
Microsoft also has a number of projects focused on distributed systems in its Silicon Valley labs, which it opened just five years ago. While the lab does not strictly focus on corporate issues, many of its projects apply to a corporate networking such as the Dryad Project.
Dryad is focused on writing and managing distributed applications and making it easy to take a single-machine program and convert it for execution in a distributed environment.
“It is essentially building the infrastructure and programming model to make those applications easy to write without having to worry about all the gory details,” says Roy Levin, distinguished engineer and director of Microsoft Research’s Silicon Valley lab.
Dryad is designed to scale from multi-core single computers, to small clusters and to data centers with thousands of computers. The Dryad execution engine handles scheduling the use of computers and their CPUs, recovering from communication or computer failures, and transporting data between operations, which can number in the thousands and include terabytes of data.
One of many
But that is only one of many projects in six research areas at the lab.
Other notable projects include a privacy engine that can filter certain data that is kept in statistical databases such as those run by the U.S. Census Bureau. The project is exploring privacy controls that range from full disclosure to locking down all information.
Another project, Nocturnal, is a social networking tool focused on allowing users to share Web site bookmarks as a feature of instant-messaging systems.
Levin says the projects reflect his lab’s balance on short term projects to benefit shipping products to futuristic technologies.
“Work we have done on Web search was focused on the near term, while what we have done around privacy is longer term,” Levin says.
In fact, that focus is stretched across all of Microsoft Research as technology continues to stretch the bounds of possibility.
“In the technology field if you're not able to change, if you're not able to adapt, if you're not able to innovate, you're not going to be around,” Rashid says. “One of the things I like to say is, the reason you have Microsoft Research is so Microsoft will still be here 10 or 15 years from now.”
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