Inside Microsoft’s ‘Envisioning Lab’ for IT clients

REDMOND, Wash. – IT managers from large Canadian enterprises may be among the international set of customers Microsoft plans to host in a new facility within its corporate campus to showcase its research and proof-of-concept projects.

Dubbed the Envisioning Lab, the facility is situated inside the company’s executive briefing centre and will be open four days a week to prospective guests. Still under construction, Microsoft hopes to have it completed within the next four weeks in order to host a formal launch event in May (The area is still so secret that Microsoft refused to allow ComputerWorld Canada to videotape any footage of the premises). The Envisioning Lab is being developed and led by the group responsible for experimenting and researching future versions of Microsoft’s Office products.

According to Ian Sands, Microsoft Corp.’s senior director of envisioning, the lab will welcome multiple customers each week, some of which may send traditional IT staff or in some cases strategic business executives, or a combination of the two. Although Microsoft will extend invitations, a visit to the lab might also come from a discussion from a customer about their needs with another part of the organization.

“I think we’ll see that this is a place where, in some cases, they’ll come to get some answers,” he said. “They may be in the midst of something they’re working on and they want to see where we’re going and how we’ll be able to contribute to their success.”

The Envisioning Lab builds off a video released by Microsoft last year which some bloggers dubbed “Vision 2019,” a long-term look at how touch, gestures, speech and scanning could become a more common way for users to interact with technology. The clip showed a variety of scenarios in which people scribbled on “air screens,” used airplane boarding passes as personal computers and were directed to their destination by smart floor tiles which lit up with arrows. Microsoft refers to these input options as a “natural user interface.”

The touch wall

Visitors to the Envisioning Lab will enter a long foyer with a row of about a dozen white chairs on the left side facing a black wall. When activated, however, the “touch wall” turns out to be composed to 12 display cubes which can be activated by a smart pen or a human hand. “Welcome (company name),” one screen said, while statistics about various aspects of IT management floated around in large and small font. “Eighty per cent of all enterprise IT departments have plans to try the cloud,” said one. “Only nine per cent of Russian workers are information workers,” said another. The touch wall can also show videos and colour slide-type information.

The foyer area becomes a space for introductory remarks about Microsoft’s vision of the natural user interface, which comprises three pillars. These include technology manipulated by expressions which are natural and intuitive to the user, connections to information which are seamless and secure, and insights which are contextual and anticipative, said Sands. This approach not only reflects the way people want to be able to work with technology and information, but the way people are beginning to approach content.

“We’re going to see less of being an author and more of being an orchestrator,” he predicted, adding that gesture and touch controls will mark an evolution from the cutting and pasting that happens in a lot of Office products today. “There will be a lot of remixing going on.”

Once past the foyer, guests will enter a white-walled room with a series of stations set up around poles which run ceiling to floor. Displays are fixed to these along with keyboards or other touch-sensitive consoles. They offer information about projects or products around mobility, cloud computing or the use of the natural user interface. One of the stations most likely to prove popular is a demo station of Microsoft’s Natal project, which uses a heat-sensitive camera to identify the person standing in front of a screen and allows that user to move objects on the screen simply by moving their arms.

The final area of the lab is a discussion lounge with comfortable white sofas and chairs organized around a coffee table that looks like a big piece of bark. The rear wall of the lounge is a contrast to the stark white of the rest of the room: it houses an enormous tapestry of leafy green foliage, underneath which are embedded sensors which monitor its health.

Although Microsoft will use the Envisioning Lab to demonstrate its ideas of the future, Sands said the facility will also function as a way of better understanding the needs of its customers. “We’ll be capturing a lot those details in this place,” he said.