REDMOND, Wash., March 21, 2005 – In the past, when the parents of Dan Cory, a Microsoft program manager, came to town, he and his father would eat lunch at a company cafeteria, then stroll over to the Microsoft Museum.
Like flipping through family photos, they would scan the artifacts in the museum’s technology timeline — the old paper punch cards used to program primitive computers, Bill Gates’ first business card and the old Radio Shack TRS-80, which reminded Cory of the Processor Technology SOL-20 that he and his father, Michael, assembled from a kit in 1977.
The Microsoft Visitor Center.
But during their latest visit, father and son did more than relive the past. They caught a glimpse of the future. They made a mini-video using Windows Movie Maker software, and sampled some of the newest online services from MSN. Michael Cory also tried out a Tablet PC for the first time and used prototype technology to play table tennis — without ever touching the paddle or any controllers.
No longer is the gallery space of Building 127 on Microsoft Redmond campus strictly a museum. Over the past year, Microsoft has expanded the size and mission of the complex, and has given it a new name. The new Microsoft Visitor Center offers employees and guests on the Redmond campus a more complete view of the company – its past, present and future, along with the shared vision that links all three: the belief that everyone has untapped potential and great software can help them achieve it.
“When you leave the Visitor’s Center, you’ll take with you a deeper understanding of who we are as a company,” says John Cirone of Microsoft’s Corporate Marketing group, who managed and helped design the museum’s transformation. “You’ll know what we care about and what motivates us. And you’ll know how our products can help you attain your potential – and have more fun while you’re at it.”
Showcase for a Cross Section of Microsoft Products, Services
The Microsoft Visitor Center combines hands-on, interactive displays of products from most of the company’s seven business groups, and is the only location on the Redmond campus that is open to any and all guests – including the community.
“No one space on campus showcased the company’s whole story,” Cirone says. “This space now does that. It allows you to step back — and forward — to look at the larger picture.”
Among the attractions:
A faux café with some of the latest handheld devices using Windows Mobile software
A living room with a home entertainment system powered by Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition
A mini-movie studio, where a “director” toting a bullhorn helps visitors create a short video, using Windows Movie Maker.
A large, pod-like enclosure with gaming stations equipped with the latest Xbox and PC games
At a display that uses gesture-recognition technology developed by Microsoft Research, visitors can play games without touching a controller – or make paintings without a brush. The technology, which tracks a person’s hand movements and converts them into actions on a PC screen, may someday allow people to control their PC without ever touching a mouse or keyboard.
Cirone says the challenge of designing a visitor center for a company such as Microsoft was similar to that for any company whose stock in trade is intellectual property, namely the ideas swirling within its employees. Unlike large companies that build cars, planes or other physical products, Microsoft doesn’t have construction plants or assembly rooms the public can visit.
One way the center tries to “lift the curtain” on how Microsoft develops its products, Cirone says, is by emphasizing how the personal and professional potential of its customers shapes the company’s software. In fact, it’s a fair bet that nowhere on earth is the word “potential” displayed in more ways and uttered more often.
At the center’s entrance, a video screen offers a succession of images of people offering brief testimonials to their potential. Then visitors get to imagine their own potential as their video image and name are superimposed into a series of scenarios played out on a moving video screen. Facial-scanning and facial-recognition software developed by Microsoft Research allows this and other displays throughout the center to automatically identify and personalize each visitor’s tour.
Much of the video currently in the center echoes themes in Microsoft’s current worldwide advertising. Cirone says the displays and products featured in the center will evolve along with the company, but the underlying concepts and vision conveyed in the center won’t.
“We want people to walk away from here with an understanding that it is the needs of our customers and partners that motivate us and drive our decisions,” Cirone says. “Product strategies may change, but our core vision – our commitment to helping people and businesses achieve their potential – will remain the same. And it will remain at the heart of this center.”
Exhibits for Young and Old
Another design tenet for the new visitor center was to appeal to the broadest possible audience, as did the museum. In its previous configuration, the space drew 80,000 visitors a year, and hosted everything from local Scout troops, to employee birthday parties, to celebrity guests, such as Muhammad Ali and talk-show host Dr. Ruth.
If the visitors on a recent afternoon are any indication, Cirone and the rest of the design team have succeeded. “Cool,” a pre-teen boy declared as he, his mother and sister strolled past the video displays in the entrance to the center. Nearby, frantic teachers from the Seattle School District, with buses waiting outside, struggled to extract their grade-school students from the product displays, particularly the gaming pod and Movie Maker studio.
Oblivious to the scurrying kids, retired engineer Don Ehlert studied the 1970s haircuts and fashions in Microsoft’s first staff photo, which includes the younger and then-shaggier company founders, Gates and Paul Allen. The photo is part of the technology timeline that remains in the center.
“If we only knew then what they’d become,” Ehlert said, smiling broadly, as he reviewed the names of the 11 Microsoft’s employees in the photo.
Despite getting beaten by the computer during a brief game of virtual table tennis, Michael Cory likes the way Microsoft has added a few pages to its family album. His son Dan left the center at least partly inspired by the center’s melding of Microsoft’s past, present and the future.
“We’ve come a long way,” the nearly 10-year Microsoft employee said. “But in many ways, we’re just beginning.”