Craig Mundie of Microsoft on the Future of Software: Digital Assistants, Natural User Interfaces, and Room Computing

7/13/09Follow @gthuang

When you’ve been at Microsoft for 17 years, you’ve seen a few things. This morning, Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, shared some of his hard-earned wisdom in a keynote talk at company headquarters in Redmond, WA—helping to kick off Microsoft Research’s 10th annual faculty summit.

Mundie outlined his broad thoughts on the future of computing and Microsoft’s role in it—and went into pretty good depth in spots. Nothing too earth-shattering, but it was cool to hear the technologist discuss the roadmap of where his company may be headed with more of a research and innovation hat on, and not much marketing slickness. The backdrop of his talk was that computing devices are becoming more and more pervasive (at least in wealthy countries), so what are the emerging opportunities? “Computing everywhere will be something we take for granted,” Mundie said. “But it was not common knowledge as little as 15 years ago.”

“Today, computers work at your command,” Mundie continued. His vision, he said, is that they will transition to “working on your behalf.”

Here are my top five takeaways from his talk:

1. It’s all about the natural user interface.

Today’s devices are able to understand voice, handwriting, and touch commands better than ever before, but nobody has really put it all together yet. “All the things we talk about as natural user interfaces have been largely used one at a time as enhancements to [graphical user interfaces],” Mundie said. Gesture recognition, expressive responses, immersive 3-D virtual environments, and understanding of context—these advances in computing algorithms will lead to software that is “better at anticipating what you might want.” (Mundie said that Nathan Myhrvold, who hired him, pointed out that early movie cameras were used to film plays before people experimented with them to create new kinds of film experiences. In the same way, better user interfaces will lead to new ideas about how to use software, Mundie implied.)

2. It’s time for the digital assistant—but fear not, real assistants.

Mundie showed a demo of Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz talking to a “robotic receptionist” (on a screen) to schedule a meeting. The software used machine vision to track Horvitz’s movements, gaze, and orientation to the screen, speech recognition to understand what he was saying, and speech synthesis to communicate back to him—all in real time. Mundie admitted each element was still rough, but … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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