Microsoft Envisioning Center: A tour of the future lab
The Microsoft Envisioning Center opened earlier this year and is designed to allow Microsoft to show off a number of futuristic thoughts and ideas without really having to prove they work or tie them to any specific product group or device within the company.
"The facility encompasses scenarios at home, at work and places in between, and is inspired by our product teams, Microsoft Research and by the trends across the industry," explains Steve Clayton, Microsoft's Chief Storyteller, on the new area within the Microsoft campus. "I like to think of it as a concept car that allows us to share what it might be like to experience future technologies with visitors, get their feedback, tweak, remix and discuss. It’s all part of advancing the trends we think have the greatest potential."
In March Pocket-lint was invited to the behind-closed-doors area, shortly after it opened, to find out what the software giant has in store for the next five to ten years and to be given a private tour by Anton Andrews, the man in charge of it all at Microsoft HQ.
The idea of the office in Microsoft's future vision is to give you an advantage over just working on your computer. A reason to go into the office, if you will, and for them that means big touchscreen displays - as big or even bigger than your desk.
Imagining the role of an engineer working on a bionic hand, Andrews showed a scenario that saw him working via a huge interactive drawing board.
The desk automatically lets Andrews login, knowing that he is in the room, and transfer content from the tablet that he has been working on away from his desk. Whether it's done via RFID, Bluetooth or NFC isn't the point, the idea is that logging into to your computer isn't expected to be the chore that it is today. The information once transferred is scattered across his new desk and he can interact with it as you would paper on a table.
While all this is happening information can be pulled in from various sources. A phone call, for example, that means Andrews needs to pull up his calendar. The calendar appears on the desk, not on his phone, so he can see things easily before reverting back to the state it was in when the call ends.
It doesn't look like Windows because it's not supposed to. It's all a concept at this stage and it is clear Microsoft is experimenting with various gesture techniques for different environments.
"We will see more and more blurring in the future," adds Andrews, as he walks us through the demo.
Andrews is referring to a more consistent work flow, one that isn't siloed by apps but flows from experience to experience: emailing in the program you are working from rather than opening up a specific app. It's the kind of experience we are already starting to see from apps on phones, not on the computer, but it's the goal of the Envisioning Center; it starts the conversation going.
The office board room
If you thought your office boardroom or meeting room was high tech because it has a speakerphone, a TV and a webcam, think again. Microsoft's vision is much bigger. Like a 20ft high by 20ft long video screen that four or five people can interact with at the same time.
It's the ultimate crisis room designed to allow groups of people to crunch through big data quickly.
Using Kinect sensors the screen is able to determine who and where you are, and adapt and change accordingly with up to four people able to use the screen at any one time.
Microsoft's demo is used to show the projected timeline of a new project a team is working on and what happens when data is plugged into that stream.
Big graphics, a snazzy interface and the ability to call up people from the wall all add to the appeal. Taking the demo one step further, Andrews shows us how in the future, big companies will be able to havetours of factories by controlling automated robots patrolling the factory floor. It has nothing to do with the wall, but it is cool.
It's not all work and no play, but that doesn’t mean technology won't change the way we shop. Here Microsoft, through the use of another display (based on its PixelSense tech, which was the original Surface table), believes shoppers of the future will place objects on a screen to get more information about them.
Once that happens and you are happy with the object you'll be able to order your goods directly from the table to be sent to you or a loved-one complete with a note you've written there and then.
Payment and delivery details is all via your phone through NFC of course.
Your home office
Microsoft's vision for the home office also includes a big screen, this time however it's also a window.
Playing with the transparent glass breakthroughs from Samsung, and the Microsoft's own work in the area (see Inside Microsoft's Edison lab: Creating a see-through computer), the idea is that when you want to use the window as a screen it is frosted over so you can see. When you don't it’s a window you can stare out of.
When you aren't looking at a screen, Microsoft believes you'll be making objects, but in the virtual world. Here the example is a clay pot you want to adapt and change. Take a real pot, scan it into the computer using a Kinect sensor, mould it with your hands digitally, before printing it out again physically with a 3D printer, all from the comfort of your home. Microsoft's demo is a bit like a futuristic version of the clay moulding scene in Ghost, but fun nonetheless.
Microsoft isn't alone in seeing the kitchen as the new digital hub for the home when it comes to organising your life. Here a big screen dominates the proceedings doubling up as a notice board, an information delivery mechanism for diary appointments, and a huge picture frame.
For day to day use, Microsoft see it as a chance to share notes, dates, and other stuff, but where it starts to get interesting is that you could also use the screen for cooking help.
In this demo Andrews opts to be shown how to cook the Korean dish bibimbap. The large screen now shows a chef telling us what to do. If you think you can already do this in your own home with a TV and Channel 4 you would be right. But once again Microsoft has looked beyond just a screen dishing out information, and connected it to a projector and Kinect sensor mounted over your kitchen hob that gives you the instructions on your work surfaces.
It's not just your work surfaces either: it's your cooker. In the demo we need to boil some water so rather than just guessing how long it will take, the cooker tells us the time to go. Simple but clever.
The living room
If you hadn't worked it out by now Kinect and big screens feature heavily in Microsoft's future world.
"Big screens might be expensive now, but we expect prices to drop dramatically in the next couple of years," explains Andrews.
Here the living room contains a custom made 120-inch 4K TV that is also connected to a number of smaller displays around the room.
The Microsoft demo illustrates how in the future the TV will be connected to a number of different technologies around the home, including the picture frames around it to extend the image on screen further (in this case a video animation of a children's story), and lights to create a full immersive experience in your living room. Watching a movie will never be the same again.
Make-believe or some day a reality?
At first glance all of the above sounds like it's all pie-in-the-sky thinking, but after you get the conversation started you realise that much of it is already possible, just not implemented in the way we see here or mainstream.
That's the idea, says Microsoft. It's about seeing what is possible and taking the best bits. For us the interactive lights in sync with the TV was the most enjoyable, as was the frosted transparent display.
It's okay. We've seen the future. Well the future according to Microsoft at least, and there is one word that can be used to describe it. Kinect-like.