Why Microsoft's Vision of the Future Will Really Happen
Microsoft released a video in 2008 and another one this week that together predict the sleek, wireless, connected gadgets we'll all enjoy by the year 2019.
Called Productivity Future Vision and Future Vision 2019, the videos fascinate in the way that science fiction does. But what's even more interesting is that this vision will almost certainly come true.
When you see them, you may be surprised by my conclusion. Will technology really move that fast?
Just remember how quickly things moved in the past 10 years.
Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a multitouch consumer device -- no iPhone, Android phone or anything even remotely like it. The original iPod was brand new, and there was no iTunes store for buying music. There was no Xbox, no YouTube, no Flickr, no Reddit. Google was just a search engine. Gmail, Maps, Docs, Calendar, Voice, Talk, Reader and many other Google services didn't exist.
Facebook? Ha! Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, and even MySpace was still years away.
In fact, virtually every aspect of today's consumer electronics scene was nonexistent or even beyond imagining 10 years ago. Almost everything Apple sells right now -- the iPad, iPhone, Siri, Apple TV, iMac, MacBook Air and other products, would have seemed like science fiction in 2001.
When most people imagine the future of technology, they envision better versions of what they've already got. But changing technology will sweep away almost all the products and services we use today.
Microsoft's videos brilliantly capture what is likely to replace them.
Where did these videos come from?
Office Labs is one of Microsoft's in-house think tanks. The initiative comes up with working concepts, some of which can be downloaded and experimented with (you need to be running Microsoft Office). Some of them are created by employees in their own time (similar to Google's 20% time projects).
Many of the Office Labs concepts would require technologies and computing power that aren't available yet. So the researchers create special-effects-laden videos and demos to communicate ideas. Microsoft also maintains an "Envisioning Lab" where close business partners can see and discuss the prototypes on display.
What to look for in the videos
In Microsoft's vision of the future, connected computers and displays are built into everyday objects.
A woman's eyeglasses whisper real-time translations of a foreign language in her ear. A coffee cup shows the drink's temperature and has a display that indicates how high the liquid is inside. An electronic newspaper is as thin and flexible as actual paper, but it functions like a wireless connected multitouch text-and-video e-reader.
"Monitors" in the video are often depicted as clear smart glass. Call 'em "Microsoft Windows." What the heck.
A businessman uses a clear-glass display that is straight-up Minority Report, controlled with both touchscreen and "wave your hands in the air like you just don't care" gestures. Both display and touch-input devices look like regular clear glass until they come to life with gestures. In some scenes, touch gestures become in-air gestures, as they extend beyond the screen.
On-screen buttons, dials and other controls appear as needed for the task at hand, then vanish when no longer required.
A clear-glass stylus is also used in one scene, suggesting a role for a pen.
Keyboards are depicted, both the onscreen and physical variety. But there's a lot less typing in this future, as Siri-like voice assistance and dictation replaces most typing.
See-through glass displays, of course, are perfect for augmented reality. A mobile version is held up to a green plant, which is visible through the clear glass. But then the device recognizes the species, and throws information about it on the screen.
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The window of a taxi turns into an augmented reality screen, pointing out to the passenger the building where her meeting is to take place the next day.
Other displays aren't clear, but appealingly opaque. In many cases, surfaces that used to hold analog information tools themselves replace the tools. For example, instead of a whiteboard mounted on a wall -- a standard feature in today's conference rooms -- the wall of the future is the whiteboard -- computerized and connected, of course. Instead of a tablet on a table, the table is the tablet.
In one scene, two businesspeople each place a smart object on a smart table -- a keychain fob and a flat phone or smartcard of some kind. From these devices, out spills their data, which can be manipulated on the table. The same thing happens at home, where a girl's homework spills out onto the kitchen table, and cookbook instructions spill out onto the kitchen counter.
Data and documents can apparently be transferred from anything to anything else. One business-related example involves a drag-and-drop gesture from a desktop to a mobile device. In another scene, that same mobile device becomes a virtual keyboard for a desktop computer the user happens to be sitting at.
Another example shows a man "capturing" with a kind of take-a-picture gesture using a clear-glass remote control then moving data from a wall-mounted device and dumping it out onto his e-newspaper.
Videoconferencing has been perfected. What looks like a glass window into another classroom is actually a live, big-screen video chat connecting schools in India and Australia. In one scene, two children interact with each other, each speaking a different language instantly translated with cartoon-like speech bubbles.
Intelligent agents pay attention to what's going on. The kids fingerpaint a dog onscreen, and the computer recognizes the image and animates it accordingly.
One very cool and versatile device shown in the video is a smartphone, a card-like gadget so thin that a woman uses it as a book marker. The card functions as a boarding pass, an airport map, a calendar, an augmented reality window, a 3D holographic display and more.
The phone splits into two halves about the size of playing cards, with one "card" displaying live video and the other held up to the ear for videoconferencing on the go. It even projects some kind of laser beam arrow on the ground, telling Mr. Future Businessman where to go.
Everything is connected to everything. Intelligent agents make decisions about when to inform the user about relevant data.
Why these are great predictions
Everything in this video is being worked on, refined and developed. If you follow current trends for compute power, display technology, networking speeds, device miniaturization, flexible displays, touchscreens, gesture technologies and others, you get this Microsoft future.
And Microsoft itself is working on much of this. The intelligent displays are really just advanced versions of what's possible now with a Microsoft Surface table. The in-air gestures are advanced versions of what Kinect for Xbox 360 users are already doing.
Industrywide, displays are getting bigger while devices are getting thinner and lighter. Companies have already developed versions of clear displays, augmented reality systems and all the rest.
The past four years have ushered in thin multitouch tablets supporting gestures and intelligent agent voice technology.
Although breathtaking to look at and consider, everything in Microsoft's videos are fairly conservative predictions based on existing products or technology actively being developed.
Why Microsoft won't build it
There tends to be little connection between companies that envision the future clearly and those who build it.
AT&T envisioned the future in 1993, for a special edition of Newsweek magazine that came with a CD-ROM containing a series of videos.
Those videos suggested that in the future, people would read books online, get directions on screens in their cars, send a fax from the beach, pay road tolls wirelessly, buy tickets from ATM-like machines, make international video calls, open doors by voice command, use electronic medical records, attend meetings remotely with video and PowerPoint from a laptop, watch video-on-demand downloadable movies and take college classes online.
I remember those ads. They seemed pretty far-fetched to most people who saw them. Yet they were an accurate prediction of many of the technologies we now take for granted. AT&T's predictions all came true, except for the one where they say, "And AT&T will bring it to you."
If Microsoft is to lead the revolution, it would have to become a different kind of company. Microsoft has always had great R&D, but it has long struggled to get real products to the market in time to make a difference. Right now, Microsoft tends to be about three years behind industry leaders when it comes to cool new consumer technologies.
Microsoft could lead us into this amazing new future. But it probably won't.
Microsoft's breathtaking vision of the future will probably happen. But Apple, Google and other companies will probably bring it to you.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com,