Q&A: Customers Put to Work in Workplace of the Future

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 26, 2002 — When corporate customers and partners come to visit Microsoft’s main campus, they might expect a cup of coffee, a conference room discussion, introductions, or other formalities.

Some, however, are put to work.

At the new Center for Information Work (CIW), visiting customers get to use experimental devices and still-in-development Microsoft software to solve a simulated business crisis. The CIW, which opens this week, is an immersive demonstration lab for customers and partners. And rather than making visitors look at a series of static displays like a museum of the future, it actually puts them to work in a setting that could very well be an office of the year 2006.

Microsoft uses the Center for Information Work to explore advances in software development, in combination with prototype technology developed by CIW technology participants Sony, Acer and Intel. The Center offers a hands-on illustration of how these innovations will advance management of information fatigue, mobility and data analysis, as well as unify business processes and collaboration.

Thomas Gruver, Group Marketing Manager for the CIW, spoke with PressPass about the Center’s goals and features. The core objective, he says, is to project a vision for one possible avenue where technology is taking work and productivity. “The CIW offers customers a window into our thinking,” Gruver says. “We want them to experience this vision first-hand, to touch the devices and get excited about what may be available to them in the future.”

Thomas Gruver demonstrates a prototype work station in the new Microsoft Center for Information Work.

PressPass: What do visitors see in the Center for Information Work?

Gruver: The CIW is an office-like setting that illustrates potential productivity scenarios and software innovations. It features workstations, a conference room, car and airplane modules, and a home setting featuring Sony hardware and Acer Tablet PC’s, all tied together with ideas from Microsoft about future software to create unified business processes.

Microsoft invites executive leaders from enterprise corporations to the CIW to see first hand how software and devices can all interact and enhance collaboration and productivity in individual offices and across entire organizations. It’s a hands-on demonstration of how Microsoft envisions the continued evolution of how people work and how technology will continue to streamline and improve productivity. And afterwards, Microsoft will help them spread the word about the value of these ideas.

The productivity scenarios are demonstrated through a simulated business crisis in a fictional company called the Contoso Widget Corporation. In the context of this business crisis, visitors use a variety of technology prototypes, running Microsoft productivity packages, to collaborate and resolve the crisis quickly, easily and effectively. From this, the customers visiting the CIW get an idea of the concepts Microsoft is pursuing in developing productivity software, and how we’re working with companies like Sony, Acer and Intel to bring these ideas to life.

PressPass: What are some of the directions in which this development work is going?

Gruver: For starters, mobility scenarios are featured throughout the environment, the entire workplace is made mobile, through the use of Tablet PCs, Pocket PC handheld devices, smart phones, and other wireless mobile devices. This means people are freed from being tied down to a desktop to be productive. The CIW demonstrates a number of collaboration applications, such as the RingCam, which is a set of inexpensive, omnidirectional video cameras that record a 360-degree view of a room, such as from the center of a conference table during videoconferencing. It uses an array of microphones to determine who is speaking, and automatically shows that person’s face. It also includes BroadBench, which is a display so wide it partly wraps around the person viewing it. This provides a very large virtual desktop, in an effort to test new UI models around productivity, looking at larger screen sizes and the use of peripheral vision.

We also are very excited about the Tablet PCs, which on November 7 will be officially released, becoming the first of the innovations shown in the CIW to actually be publicly available. The Tablet PC does everything a laptop does, but also incorporates pen input, meaning you have the option of writing information into the computer directly onto the screen. While all Tablet PCs come with a keyboard, sometimes it’s not practical to use a keyboard, such as when you’re walking in the hall, or in meetings, on the factory floor, or other places where a keyboard or mouse is impractical. In these cases, you can use the pen just like a keyboard and mouse. Finally, the Tablet PC links up with all the collaboration packages in the CIW, so it adds even greater mobility and flexibility to the workplace.

PressPass: What does Microsoft hope to accomplish with the CIW?

Gruver: Microsoft invested in the Center for Information Work to demonstrate to customers its continuing advances towards creating software that improves information-worker productivity and enhances the user experience. Microsoft’s goal is to create prototypes from conceptual ideas that come internally, as well as with partners and customers. These ideas may then end up back in product groups throughout the company, whatever the incarnation. The CIW offers customers a window into our thinking – we want them to experience this vision first-hand, to touch the devices and get excited about what may be available to them in the future.

PressPass: Does it represent actual development work or targets at Microsoft, or just concepts?

Gruver: With the exception of the Tablet PC, which will become available to the public on November 7, the technologies demonstrated in the CIW do not represent shipping products. Microsoft believes technologies similar to those showcased in the CIW will be available in three to five years, but may not be available to the general public in that timeframe. The devices and technologies in the CIW are experimental, and though they may be directions we take in development, they are not meant to represent specific versions of Microsoft software products.

PressPass: Do you think people really want and will use these applications?

Gruver: We think people will use some of these ideas in the future, others not. The purpose of the CIW is to explore a variety of scenarios and get customer feedback. But we’re confident that people will be excited by what they see, and look forward to a chance to bring that technology into their work life. For example, it’s very difficult for most companies to collaborate electronically today – that kind of work is typically done on a whiteboard, which means people have to recreate the discussion on paper in order to take data away for later use. Technology at the CIW is designed to showcase the many ways people could collaborate electronically in the future. Examples include software that retrieves information such as statistics, sales figures or charts, as needed, from an organization’s intranet, partner extranets and even the World Wide Web.

As a prime example, the Tablet PC fits very well into this kind of collaborative environment, as it is designed for usability in a mobile or out-of-office setting. You can write notes or diagrams directly into the Tablet PC, including adding information to the whiteboard collaboration I just mentioned, and even do a search of your handwritten notes.

PressPass: What kind of response have you had from customers taking the tour?

Gruver: Customers have just begun touring the CIW, but feedback overall has been positive. It’s exciting to share ideas with customers and provide them the opportunity to tell us what they like or dislike about some of the ideas in the pipeline.

PressPass: How do you determine what technologies would be included in the CIW?

Gruver: We include technologies currently being examined by the various product divisions across Microsoft, as well as Microsoft Research and its partners. In addition, Sony, Acer and Intel are helping present Microsoft’s vision for creating better productivity tools for information workers. To build the CIW, we combine our ideas with those of our partners and customers, to look at how people might be working three to five years down the road. Then we pull that vision back to today and build it together, by sharing ideas and developing prototypes. A lot of it is simply brainstorming about how the software and hardware of an office can be made simpler, more streamlined and more collaborative.

PressPass: So does that mean it will be a few years before we can expect to see this sort of technology in the mainstream?

Gruver: Except for the Tablet PC, everything in the CIW is a prototype of technology concepts. That means everything else is still at least three to five years away – and some of the technologies may never become available if our research and customer feedback tells us that it’s not a technology people want. And frankly, that is how the CIW will always be – it will always be a hands-on testing lab, so to speak, of prototype technology. We never want current productivity technology to catch up to the CIW, so we will perpetually be advancing the CIW display so that it is always a look ahead, not a look at the present.

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