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This is what Microsoft thinks the future will look like
By Jack Torrance MT got a rare glimpse inside the tech giant’s Envisioning Centre at its Washington HQ. Microsoft’s home of the future isn’t a new concept – the tech giant’s been treating consumers to a glimpse of where it thinks our lives are headed since the early 90s. Its modern-day equivalent, the Envisioning Centre, helps the company to show major commercial partners where it sees technology heading in the near future. It’s not open to the public and most visitors have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but MT got a rare glimpse into where the tech giant thinks the world is headed. “Everything is based on a very sober technology extrapolation,” says David Baumert, head of Microsoft’s Strategic Prototyping division. “It’s not about showcasing currently existing products,” he explains, “or even those that are due for release soon, but about imagining where the world is headed so that Microsoft can understand what solutions it needs to come up with.” THE OFFICE OF THE FUTURE First Baumert invites us to imagine he is a designer at a firm that creates prosthetic hands. He approaches a large touchscreen workstation that detects his presence and automatically adjusts its angle and settings to those he prefers (there’s some pretty enthusiastic play acting going on throughout this demo). “I need a haptic sensor,” he says to his virtual assistant, which drags up a few dozen parts he might be able to use. “It needs to fit here,” he says, indicating a fingertip on his design. The point here is that the machine recognises the context of his search – he doesn’t have to specify dimensions. The computer finds a part that fits, but now he needs to know how to connect it. Baumert opens an article about the topic – it’s long and would take him hours to read and digest so the computer pulls it apart, drags out the most relevant parts and cross references with the web. As it turns out, a friend of a friend is an expert in the matter, so he’s able to give him a video call and get some help.
Baumert takes the hand to his clients, where he presents the schedule for the project on a big screen. They’re happy with the new design but the chart flashes red – the new prosthetic hand is too complicated to be made by the current manufacturer. The system automatically suggests some alternatives, but they’re companies Baumert’s not familiar with, so how can he trust them? In the future, it seems, factories will allow potential clients to commandeer small robots to take a remote tour of their facilities and check out what they’re doing. That might seem a bit far-fetched – but you never know. ON THE GO On his way home, Baumert passes a restaurant and gets a phone notification, telling him some friends recently visited the restaurant and had posted on social media that they had a good time. So he decides to pop in. The menu’s a bit complicated so he uses a cultural translator app to explain what’s on offer in simple terms – something he suggests could be integrated into Microsoft’s much-touted Hololens augmented reality headset, which is on the way soon. While in the restaurant, he uses his phone to instruct hidden cameras and microphones in the room to document his meal. That’s a bit creepy, but also means an end to the incessant annoyance of amateur photographers flooding restaurants with camera flashes. AT HOME When Baumert gets to his front door, there’s no need for keys – it recognises him and opens automatically. His kitchen wall is dominated by a large touchscreen, a digital replacement for the fridge door, telephone, TV and PC. It’s dotted with children’s’ drawings, to do lists, post and, as if by magic, the pictures that were captured in the restaurant. “I’m going to make some dinner,” says Baumert, holding up a chilli pepper. “What can I cook with this?” The screen switches over to a cookery application, scans the ingredient and, using information from the household’s grocery spending history, figures out what other ingredients can be used to make a meal. A virtual chef who then talks him through how to cook Bibimbap. On the living room wall is a large TV, which doubles as a picture frame. “Tonight we’re going to use it to call up Grandma for a bedtime story,” says Baumert, who brings up a (simulated) video call with said relative. The TV conjures up a story for the grandmother to read, accompanied by animations on the screen. The system is integrated with the other devices in the room – so when the story’s protagonist is caught in a blizzard all the light turns bright white and when he lands in a pile of blossom, red patterns are projected onto the floor. A visit to the Envisioning Centre doesn’t leave you jaw-dropped with amazement. But that’s because it isn’t supposed to be a sci-fi vision of the distant future but a realistic, comprehensible vision of how our homes and offices might start to look in the next few years. As with most predictions about the future, some aspects
of it are unlikely to come to fruition; but it certainly offers an interesting glimpse of what Microsoft is anticipating.