Craig Mundie sees science fiction becoming reality all the time. The holodeck, for example – that futuristic simulation room on Star Trek – isn’t so futuristic anymore for the chief research and strategy officer of Microsoft Corp.
“It isn’t that many years away where you’re going to find it quite natural to interact at a distance,” says Mundie, who spoke at the Cleveland Clinic Ideas for Tomorrow series on Jan. 5. “In fact, one of the things that I think you’ll see quite soon is the ability for people to, at least in small groups, go and have meetings together where none of them are actually physically in the same room but their ability to look at each other and talk and communicate is as if you were in the same place.”
Mundie presented Microsoft’s new innovations and shared how innovative technologies will change the game when it comes to long-distance interaction.
“Today we talk about collaboration as you make a phone call and talk; you can have a video conference,” he says. “But increasingly, we think this interaction at a distance is going to be really important. I generally tend to use the term tele-presence as a way to think about what it’s going to be like. … There was the telephone, which collapsed distance for people, but only with the spoken word. Then there was television, which allowed us to do that with images. And I think the next thing that we’re going to see is tele-presence, where more and more we’ll be able to interact with people in a very lifelike and realistic way that aren’t there.”
Your kids are already using tele-presence – gaming systems like Xbox use avatars to represent players and help them communicate with opponents who aren’t sitting next to them on the couch. Mundie said those will become more realistic.
“The idea that you can have some very lifelike representation that you’re essentially projecting yourself through is not really science fiction,” he says.
Why is this important? Mundie closed his presentation with a video demonstration of a system Microsoft is currently developing based on these technologies. They created a “triage nurse” out of a computer kiosk with the knowledge and question-asking capacity to prioritize patients and make recommendations.
“This is where I think all of these technologies have the promise to come together and be an amplification factor for the skilled, highly-trained people, whether they’re teachers or doctors, to be able to scale up our capabilities in a more cost-effective way on a planet that’s going to continue to see an increase of population,” Mundie says.
Or there’s the example from the University of Washington BioRobotics Lab, where researchers took an Xbox Kinect sensor into a new environment. In Mundie’s video, a man uses a force feedback system – similar to the joystick in a flying simulation – to “feel” objects in another room, perhaps a precursor for how surgeons will maintain tactile capacity during robotic surgeries.
“Many of these things are very important in terms of moving people to comfort in dealing with computers or dealing with people interacting [across] distance,” he says. “Many people today get great value and utility out of computers, but they historically require a lot of training and acclimation to really get a lot of value out of it. As we move to these advanced graphical interfaces and direct manipulation interfaces where you can do things with your fingers or add voice commands, then the ease can get a lot better. The things that have frustrated people in using computers are going to be overcome by making them behave more like we do.”
In other words, why mess with tiny keyboards when your cell phone responds to voice commands? With new direct manipulation interfaces like voice and touch, we’re at a transition point with computers. Until now, they’ve primarily been tools. With those capabilities as good as they need to be, developers are turning to the next phase.
“The key to this is essentially to make it work less at your command and more on your behalf,” Mundie says. “More and more, we’re trying to get these computer systems to anticipate the type of things that you would want to do. In essence, it’s like having a great assistant. They know when you ask them something that they take all of the history and what your preferences are and they factor that into what they do for you.”
Depending how many accounts, profiles and updates you have online, your computer might know you much more intimately than your real assistant. Mundie and his team are trying to use that to your advantage.
For example, they wanted Bing to do more work to satisfy your search, reducing your job to “one input, one click.” Now, when Mundie types in Denver, Bing thinks ahead to why he might be searching for that, and spits back real-time flight prices – kind of like an assistant would.
“We are at a point where computers are going to be more like us,” Mundie says. “From that, we can open up a completely new realm of what the computer can do for us and with us.”