REDMOND, Wash., May 18, 2006 – Last year, Microsoft asked industrial designers worldwide a question: What if the physical components, size and shape of the PC were dictated by how people use it – not by the two-decades-old concept of a box-like central processing unit (CPU), keyboard and monitor?
The answers flooded in, including nearly 200 proposals from amateur and professional designers worldwide. The response was so great, in fact, that Microsoft plans to make the Next Generation PC Design Competition – the contest it created to ask the question –– an annual event.
Microsoft will begin accepting entries on Aug. 15 for the second annual installment of the competition. In addition to offering more categories of awards and prizes than last year, Microsoft will spotlight the competition at next week’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), where prototypes and models of last year’s winners will be on display. The competition will also be showcased at the 2006 national conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) in October.
“For the PC to keep up with our ever-changing computing needs and lifestyles – as well as reflect the diversity of the people who use PCs today – its physical design needs to continue to evolve,” says Kevin Eagan, general manager of Microsoft’s Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) Division. “This kind of constant evolution requires ongoing debate and a broad influx of ideas. We hope to do both by making the Next Generation PC Competition an annual event.”
Microsoft introduced the competition in 2005 in collaboration with the IDSA, an organization that promotes the quality and positive impact of design, and two PC manufacturers, Dell and HP, to help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Microsoft Windows operating system. But once the entries began coming in, the organizers realized they had an uncovered a much more valuable resource: a way to broaden the pool of potential PC concepts and designs.
Microsoft received inquiries from hundreds of designers – even a 14-year-old girl from India – and recorded as many as 18,000 downloads of the entry kit. When the deadline arrived, 195 entrants from 33 nations had submitted designs. Not only was the level of interest surprising for a first-time competition, so was the diversity of the ideas.
Entries included a robot-like PC with no keyboard or mouse, controlled only by voice and touch. There was a wearable device that would act as an instantaneous transmitter/receiver to connect the user to their home computer. Also submitted was a transparent frame-laptop PC with a tactile glass display and no plugs or wires, allowing the technology to “disappear totally” and the computer become much more intuitive and easy to use, the designer explained on the entry form.
A Digital Dining Room Table
One of the 33 finalists proposed embedding computing technology into a dining-room table, so family members could use the side-by-side embedded workstations to simultaneously search the Internet, share digital pictures and music or challenge each other to multi-player electronic games on side-by-side embedded workstations. The Binary Plant PC proposed by another of the finalists allows the user to plug hardware into a central stem, the assembly lending “itself to the metaphor of … a growing and adaptive plant,” according to the designer. A proposed Living PC would come with plant seeds and space to build a high-tech garden on and around the actual PC.
Last year’s entries demonstrated the power of industrial design to help people discover new possibilities in even the most monolithic products, according to Steve Kaneko, design director of Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Innovation Group.
“Industrial designers create more than pretty exteriors for objects,” he says. “They can provide the vision necessary to integrate the PC and other technology more seamlessly into our lives.”
This can be easier said then done with Windows-based PCs. Unlike technology companies that rely on industrial design to make their products appear more fashionable, Kaneko explains, the challenge for Microsoft and PC designers is to translate broad variety of experiences that the Windows operating system enables.
“The design,” he says, “has to help amplify your life.”
New Prizes and Awards
Kaneko is eager to begin reviewing this year’s entries. There’s likely to be even more – and more innovative – designs from a younger cadre of designers. In addition to promoting the competition at events such as WinHEC, Microsoft has added more prizes and an additional award. Designers will compete for first-, second- and third-place Judges’ Awards of US$25,000, $15,000 and $10,000, respectively. Last year, there was a single first-place judges’ prize. An Educator Award also has been added to reward a faculty advisor if he or she is named in a winning entry.
The competition’s four design categories – entertainment, communications and mobility and personal productivity and living/lifestyle – have been retained from last year, as have the Public Choice Award, selected by voters online, and the Chairman’s Award, selected by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. The reward for each is U$25,000 and $10,000, respectively.
The additional prizes and award are among the ways Microsoft is trying to cultivate the next generation of talent, the budding designers on university campuses today. Organizers also have developed materials to help faculty integrate the competition into their instructional curriculum.
“Student designers have nothing invested in the traditional model of what a PC should look like or be,” says Eagan. “They have the freedom to consider new form factors and take advantage of Windows PC technology in new ways.”
The IDSA has gotten involved in the competition, President Ron Kemnitzer says, because it helps build bridges between the design and PC industries, as well as nurtures young, undiscovered design talent.
“This competition makes one thing very clear: You don’t have to work for a big design firm to shape the future of the PC,” Kemnitzer says. “Anybody can be an innovator, wherever you are.”
Uncovering new talent
Sungho Son was one of these undiscovered talents when he entered the bookshelf-style PC that he and his academic advisor Scott Shim designed in the competition last year. It was one of many contests that Son, a graduate student in industrial design at Purdue University, had entered to gain attention for his work and win enough prize money to buy new electronic gadgets. “They stimulate and give me new ideas for future designs,” he says.
Son’s prototype PC, which allows users to add hard-disk drive (HDD) attachments to a shelf-like enclosure with a central processing unit (CPU), won the Judges Award. The judges praised his design for its simplified management of digital content and copyrights. To watch movies, listen to music or play a computer game, people would purchase, borrow or rent secure hardware attachments with preloaded content-management functions. Digital content could be downloaded from a provider’s server – but not transferred to – a compatible PC by slipping the attachment into the expandable shelf unit.
“This competition gives designers an opportunity to create something more — to create something from a customer’s perspective, something that can’t be found elsewhere,” Son says.
Diverse design viewpoints are increasingly important as the PC industry continues to expand into underserved markets and meet the needs of different cultures, according to Kristina Goodrich, IDSA executive director and CEO.
“These cultures act as a filter,” Goodrich explains. “They shape how we must develop use standards, identify and integrate specialized applications and offer this technology at appropriate price points.
“A great deal of attention will need to be spent doing research and analysis, creating design languages and fulfilling the need for diversification,” Goodrich explains. “This will create huge opportunities for designers at the strategic and execution ends of this industry.”
Hardware manufacturers such as HP and Dell have some of the best and brightest design talents in the IT industry, Kaneko says. But these companies must operate within the commercial constraints of their industry, he says: “By opening this competition up to industrial designers around the world, we can attract diverse perspectives and designs.”
Increased debate, new opportunities
The spotlight on these new perspectives and designs doesn’t fade once the winners are announced. Microsoft has created an online portfolio for the winners’ and other finalists’ entries.
After he won the prize, Son began receiving e-mails from people around the world who wanted to discuss PC design and digital copyright issues with him. One e-mail from a professor in India led to an extended exchange of ideas and designs.
Son has yet to receive any offers from hardware companies to license his design, but he has accepted another offer – a job at Microsoft.
After graduation this spring, Son will begin working in the Windows Hardware Design Group. Kaneko expects Son’s hardware design ideas and vision to help Microsoft better accommodate the needs of hardware manufacturers with its software.
Before entering the Next Generation PC Competition, Son had his sights set on a job with a PC manufacturer. But after learning about Microsoft’s vision for helping guide the future of PC hardware, he realized he could play an important role at the company.
“Microsoft may not build PCs, but it can help create the blueprints for the hardware of the future,” he says. “That’s going to be my job.”
It’s also the challenge for all who enter the Next Generation PC Design Competition.