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Microsoft's Envisioning Centre showcases future home, office technology

Microsoft's Envisioning Centre is a prototype that shows what a modern house or state-of-the-art office would look like ten years down the line.

Sunny Sen        Last Updated: March 12, 2013  | 18:53 IST

Sunny Sen
Sunny Sen
Imagine a brick and mortar house talking and listening, understanding and maybe even helping you with your day-to-day activities. Not just your home, imagine your office, too, is a place with computers in every single surface, be it your desk, the walls of a conference room, or whiteboards.

That's what Microsoft's Envisioning Centre, a part of Microsoft Research, is all about. It's all about the company's vision to "live, work, play".

It is a prototype that shows what a modern house or state-of-the-art office would look like ten years down the line. The Envisioning Centre, situated in the company's Redmond, Washington state facility, has been built on the concept of enhanced collaboration. It brings together big data learning, machine learning and combines these with touch and sense technology to create a future model of homes and offices.

The first generation of the centre, which went by a different name then, was started in 1994 in an attempt to make future homes. The future office model was built in 2002. "The present day Envisioning Centre is the third embodiment of the original," says Jonathan C. Cluts, Director, Strategy Prototyping, who heads the centre.

In 1996, Cluts made something no one thought would become mainstream today. He built a digital picture frame for Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer. Cluts later worked on the "media centre", which showcased access and sharing of content such as photos and videos across devices. Today, content sharing is pervasive. Someday, Cluts' 10-year vision of interactive offices and homes might also become a reality.

The Office Vision
Walk to your desk, the one with your computer, books, stationery and other items. Ten years from now all that stuff may have vanished. Instead the desk could have a pair of eyes - in this case, a Kinect camera that uses face-recognition technology. It will know its master. The desk is nothing but a glass surface, with a computer behind, that is interactive. It is your computer, your notebook, contains all your reading material, your calendar and much more.

So, for example, if you are an engineer, you can direct your desk through touch and voice commands to pull out a design you have been working on. Not just the drawings, everything inside and outside the organisation is embedded for reference. So, now, you have your drawing and zillions of references, depending on what you want to use. "It pulls the metadata, which can be used as an engineering tool," says Cluts.

During the demo, Cluts' phone rings. His son has won a championship, so his wife wants him to attend the award function over the weekend. The phone, which is already integrated with the office surroundings, promptly opens the calendar on the desk and adds a schedule. "The desk pulls out a lot of information, and runs rich contextual search, and this is always running in the background," explains Cluts.

The technology behind the desks partly comes from Microsoft's acquisition of Perceptive Pixel, a specialist in multi-touch hardware and software technology.

Today, you frequently find yourself in conference rooms, attending meeting after meeting, and often lose track. Think about a conference room that has a 216 a sq. ft. screen. The screen, like your desk, will be your notebook, whiteboard and video conferencing medium. It will also index the minutes of the meeting. The screen also helps you analyse large amounts of data to take business decisions. While closing the meeting, you can even ensure access to the content for the next meeting.

The screen is embedded with rich media content, and has complete and intelligent access to the Internet. It also has colourful sticky notes, but in a digital format. And once again, the whole screen can be controlled from your Windows phone. You can sort and arrange schedules under various heads.

"You can work from anywhere, but there will be collaborative spaces, which will be offices," says Cluts.

…And The Home
It might be debatable if you want your home to be humanoid. But there is definitely an option. The kitchen, where people spend a lot of time in the morning and evening, will perhaps be the first to be changed by technology. A lot happens in the kitchen. Planning of events, discussions about children's classes and about other family matters often take place in the kitchen.

So, it's a good place to start.

The refrigerator surface might get interactive. Or a large screen on the kitchen wall might just do the trick. The Kinect-enabled display takes note of everything, pulls out information, arranges your schedules, connects you to various people, you get the drift.

Oh, and it also helps you cook.

You could have a smarter stove and a touch and sensor enabled tabletop. Or maybe there's no need for that since the Kinect can sense things. For instance, you could take a brinjal, show it to the Kinect camera, and ask it what your cooking options are. The display, which is intelligent shows a whole lot of recipes, and even pulls video feeds for your reference.

Too easy.

But what about the cost of putting that huge a display. Cluts recalls that barely ten years back, a 40-inch Plasma television cost an exorbitant, $20,000. That's not the case anymore. "Ten years from now the displays won't be prohibitively expensive," he says.

Using Kinect technology, you can have a section in your home where you can do your own 3D designing. Take an object, scan it, give it your own shape and maybe 3D print it.

It's fun. And there's much more of it.

Your children might want to listen to stories narrated by their grandmother. Their room can have a large screen connected to grandma's house, which would have a similar display. The screen not only comes alive with grandma and the children looking at each other and listening to each other, it also makes storytelling interactive.

There's an element of crystal ball gazing in all this. Things may not quite turn out the way Cluts' office and home look right now. "We explore the possibilities, and the product teams figure out the more difficult hardware part," says Cluts.

As some song goes: If you ain't got a dream, you ain't got nothing.

(The writer is in Redmond, Washington state, at the invitation of Microsoft Research)

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