Inside Microsoft: A peek into the heart of an empire: Page 2 of 2
By Gabey Goh September 2, 2014
Mapping the Underground
Much of my belief that Microsoft isn’t quite out of the game just yet, and remains its own worst enemy, stems from the experiences gained during this very tour.
The two-day outing had a jam-packed schedule, but I’m not going to talk about everything, just the parts which I feel show a side of Microsoft that many outside Redmond never get to see.
If there was one thing I immediately noticed about Redmond, or the Microsoft Campus as the headquarters is informally known as, was how different the vibe and energy was compared with other Microsoft offices I’ve visited in the past.
Maybe it was the fact that within the sprawling campus that houses more than 40,000 employees alone out of its global headcount of 128,000, sat thousands of developers, engineers and researchers.
It was a stark contrast from my experience with the mainly sales and marketing teams which make up the frontline forces for Microsoft subsidiaries around the world.
Microsoft initially moved onto the grounds of the campus on Feb 26, 1986, weeks before the company went public on March 13 that same year. Since then, the campus has gone through several expansion phases.
The campus reflects the company’s own long history, with different buildings reflecting the decade it was constructed in, along with its own share of stories. For example, there is a lake called Lake Bill (pic below).
Yes, so named after founder Bill Gates because he apparently jumped in and swam across it to celebrate the successful release of a product. Yes, that Bill Gates!.
Since then, it has become tradition for team leaders to take a swim in Lake Bill whenever a product ships on time.
From ideas to market
We had the pleasure of being briefed by Microsoft Research chief scientists Rico Malvar (pic), on the role the division plays within the company.
Established in 1991 with a team of 150, today it employs over 1,100 researchers spanning computer scientists, physicists, engineers, and mathematicians, accounting for less than 1% of Microsoft’s total headcount.
Malvar shared that nearly every product or service from Microsoft includes technology that has come out of the work done by the research division, which publishes 95% of its discoveries to share with the wider academic community.
Bing Translator and the Xbox Kinect are just some of the products which features tech developed under Microsoft Research.
Malvar is also passionate about increasing diversity in technology fields, and does a lot of work on education and awareness.
“There are many women in computer sciences at the undergraduate level, but how many finish their doctorates? And of that number, how many go on to do research?
“As a community we have a responsibility to try, little by little, to address biases and barriers to entry for women and minorities. Some are real and some are perceived, so it is very important to work in close collaboration with academia,” he said.
Some of the projects we were introduced to included IllumiShare (pic), a low-cost, peripheral device that looks like a desk-lamp, which is intended to allow people to collaborate together using real ink and paper.
It has yet to reach commercialisation stage, and only time will tell if it makes it or languishes in the ‘valley of death’ between research and market.
There is also the WorldWide Telescope project, which is a collaborative effort between Microsoft Research and a variety of academic and governmental agencies.
The project enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky, blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a media-rich immersive experience. Explore it here.
There was also Gigapixel ArtZoom, an interactive panoramic image of Seattle that captures artists and performers in action throughout a 360-degree view of the city.
You can zoom into the image to see dancers, acrobats, painters, performance artists, actors, jugglers, and sculptors – all appearing simultaneously within a single 20-gigapixel image. Check it out here.
Walking into the Edison Lab, run by the company’s Applied Sciences Group, is walking into a dark cave housing an inventor’s dream workshop.
With machines, tools, prototypes and displays crowding the space, much of the work the lab does focuses on display and interface technologies.
The ultimate goal of the lab stems from a vision outlined in 2009 by Microsoft about the ‘Magic Window’ concept.
Imagine a pane of glass in your office or classroom that would let you talk to people on the other side of the window as if they were in the next room, even though in reality they could be on the other side of the world.
We got demonstrations of a few of the technologies that the company is working on, including see-through and 3D displays.
Could a Start Trek holodeck be in our future? You never know, but one thing’s for certain – the building blocks that will eventually get us there are residing in the Edison Lab at this very moment.
Out of bounds to almost all Microsoft employees, this showcase space is where the company pitches to high-level partners and customers on what it believes the most realistic and ideal vision of the near future of technology is going to look like.
The centre shows scenarios at home, at work and places in between, and is inspired by Microsoft Research and trends across the industry.
The centre goes through constant changes, projecting possibilities three to five years out in the future, in tandem with rapid developments taking place in the wider world.
Giant interactive displays that respond to voice and gesture commands with touch input; seamless transfer of documents and information between one device to the next, as you work on a single project with multiple colleagues.
A home pottery shop that uses Xbox Kinect hardware for gesture control, to let creators track their projects. A kitchen with a display projected next to the stove to make cooking new recipes easier.
A high-definition television that boasts a video hook-up to grandma on the other side of the world so she can read a bedtime story to the grandchildren, complete with interactive content thanks to sensors and integration lighting schemes.
Interactive screens that detect products placed on them and pull up information such as price and specifications.
This had to be my favourite part of the tour, and while none of what was showcased was technically available in the market yet, it was also the most compelling and tightly choreographed argument for betting on Microsoft and its work.
One can only imagine what kind of business the company would get if it decided to build another such showcase in Beijing.
Some final thoughts
My tour of the Redmond campus was without a doubt an eye-opening experience that will inform my work on covering the company and its developments in the months and years to come.
A humble thank you must go out to the Microsoft team that extended the kind invitation to DNA (and me) to participate in this unique tour.
But I also left the tour with one lingering thought in my mind: That for all I gained from the tour, to look at it very honestly, it was also really wasted on a journalist like me.
While I had the luxury of deciding that feature articles would be the result of this assignment, peers on the same tour were constantly on edge, grilling executives at briefings looking for any nugget of information that could be converted into a news piece.
It was most telling that before I left, contacts and friends who worked at Microsoft had but one request: Take lots of photos.
“You get to go to Redmond? I’ve never been, I heard it’s awesome!” went the responses I got.
And that got me thinking: How much more inspired and connected would these employees be had they the opportunity I had?
To speak with researchers like Rico Malvar, to get hands-on with the prototypes in the Edison Lab, or to just walk around soaking in the history and legacy that imbues every corner of Redmond?
In the courtyard of one of the buildings in the Redmond campus lies the company’s own Walk of Fame, plaques commemorating every product that Microsoft has released covering almost every tile. A good 30 minutes was spent just in that one courtyard, going down memory lane.
For if an outsider like myself can be changed from just a two-day tour, I can only imagine the impact it would have on a full blown card-carrying employee.
How many of Microsoft’s about 80,000 overseas workforce have ever made the pilgrimage?
Of course, making that happen would be a ridiculously expensive exercise, and I know the company already does have such trips in place for full-time employees every three years.
However, there are the many Microsoft employees who are not full-time but contract staff, who don’t get to enjoy this perk. Perhaps such a pilgrimage could take the form of a global tour by the company’s research and developer superstars?
With the concentration of so many brilliant minds in a single complex, I have no doubt some kind of plan can be worked out.
That’s just my humble suggestion.
Coming Soon: Leaving the underground and the beginnings of Microsoft’s next chapter.
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Microsoft renews vows with Malaysia
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Microsoft Ventures' quest to change minds, build relationships
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