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Microsoft: Spatial computing the future

Microsoft's Craig Mundie says the next era of computing will ride on multi-core processing and spatial computing, but it will be defined -- as previous computing eras -- by killer apps.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In perhaps a sign of what's at stake for Microsoft as business and consumers increasingly look...

to the "cloud" for their computing infrastructure, the software giant sent one of its top guns, research chief Craig Mundie, to last week's EmTech08 conference at MIT to talk about its profile in this paradigm shift.

In a 45-minute presentation that included cameos by two personable robots and demos of Mundie using Microsoft technology to shuttle between his (highly privileged) physical and virtual environments, he argued that the future will run on an amalgam of client and cloud computing. And in that parallel environment, he implied, Microsoft will do just fine.

Mundie, chief of research and long-term strategy at Microsoft, shares with Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie the technology duties formerly held by founder Bill Gates.

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Computing revolutions, Mundie argued, do not happen overnight. Even in the relatively young and rapidly changing discipline of computer science, the technologies that fundamentally change the way we live and work take time to penetrate the marketplace, he said, pointing to the decade or so it took for Windows/Office to really take hold.

Microsoft's global domination of the desktop, however, was not about operating systems but the superiority of its applications, Mundie asserted, still apparently fighting the monopoly charges. The success of Windows came on the back of Office, he said, on spreadsheets and word processing. Likewise, Internet adoption was driven primarily by two applications, email clients and the Web browser. And the future of computing also will not be determined by an underlying platform -- the Microsoft OS or a Web OS -- but by killer applications.

The pertinent question then, Mundie said, is what is the next killer app?

Spatial computing: Humanistic, adaptive, immersive

The next evolution will be all about computerizing the physical environment, or spatial computing, Mundie said. With spatial computing, the user interface covers many more surfaces than it does now and is more "context centered." The interface reacts to and is imbued with the environments around us, Mundie said.

One manifestation of spatial computing will be brainy robots. Mundie showed a demo video of a prototype robot receptionist that will be tested at Microsoft to handle bookings for the shuttle service that ferries employees from one building to another on the company's vast campus. Shuttle demand is so high that the company's human receptionists "waste a lot of time" booking appointments. The receptionist robot, which uses 40% of her eight-core processor even when idle, senses when people enter her space (yes, the robot is fashioned as a woman) and inquires whether they need a ride. Equipped with natural language processing and array microphones, she can "see" and "hear" subtle differences and change her pitch accordingly. So, for example, a man in a suit and tie is asked if he is there to see someone on the robot's assumption that his spiffy attire makes it likely he is a visitor, whereas two casually dressed men are just asked if they need to book a shuttle.

But software must move beyond robotics, Mundie said, if we are to realize the potential that a combination of local and remote computing offers us. The next computing evolution, he said, will be defined by multi-core processing and parallel programming; it will be context-aware, model-based, personalized, humanistic, adaptive, immersive, 3-D and it will use speech, vision and gestures. The new "spatial Web" will interact with the user's physical world to further blur distinctions between the physical and virtual worlds to provide an enhanced reality.

Photosynth, smart Surface table and buying Eskimo art

Mundie demonstrated this world using Microsoft technology such as its Surface table, which can recognize physical objects, and remarkable Photosynth 3-D software to fashion a "First Life" reality where users shuttle between virtual and physical environments to do all sorts of things.

"There is always a tension between advancing [systems] and maintaining absolute compatibility with the past."
Craig Mundie
chief of researchMicrosoft

In a demo that seemed a tad out of touch given the U.S. financial crisis and potential failure of the global economy, Mundie regaled the audience with a gee-whiz exercise involving tracking down a piece of Eskimo art he had admired in a "physical" magazine in an airport newsstand. The journey progressed from snapping a photo of the magazine cover with his smartphone, placing the smartphone on a hotel surface technology table to retrieve an online copy of the magazine and from there taking a virtual tour of the Seattle gallery where the piece was on display. The audience watched as Mundie, a collector of Pacific Northwest art, conferred virtually with wife Marie on the artwork's merits, spinning the piece virtually to see it from all angles and even chatting online with the artist, before deciding to make arrangements (including a lunch reservation and taxi) to view the coveted item in person.

Applications that prove effective in this new era of ubiquitous computing will also have to change. They will be loosely coupled, asynchronous, concurrent, decentralized and resilient -- attributes "that are almost the inverse" of the attributes that define applications today, he said.

Mundie's vision of computing future as a rich interface between representation and reality was brought down to earth by a question from an audience member from Phoenix asking about -- what else? -- migrating to Windows Vista.

He wanted to know, given Mundie's vision of rich user interfaces, when we can expect Microsoft to make its programs aware of the gaps in user knowledge. Having just migrated to the Vista operating system, the audience member discovered after several weeks that his wife didn't know how to turn off the program and had been resorting to unplugging the computer to shut down -- that's how unintuitive the system was. And lest anyone think he was being sexist, he raised his own persistent inability to correctly use then and than and wondered why a company that can program a robot can't figure out how to accommodate the frailties of its human customers.

"That's a good question. It is one we have struggled with on and off for a long, long time," Mundie conceded, referring back to a presentation slide showing Microsoft's array of products over its lifetime.

"There is always a tension between advancing [systems] and maintaining absolute compatibility with the past. We have tried a lot of different ways at times to find a balance of those things," Mundie said. In the case of Microsoft's decision to change the model of the Office user interface by switching to what it calls "the ribbon," the aim was to accommodate new users of the product.

"There is only one reason to change to the ribbon. It was a way to more naturally expose the underlying capabilities of the product to people who had only limited understanding of the facilities of the prior generation [of Office]," he said.

"I think this aspect of discoverability is a big part of better user interface design. Your wife should have easily been able to figure out how to discover how to turn it off. And we're not there yet."


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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