Cute high-tech cubes want to get to know you

Microsoft interns create charming gadgets with the ambitious mission to tell people’s stories

The brightly colored cubes of Project Atlas have friendly faces, perky ears that reveal their moods and a mission to capture stories as they’re passed from person to person around the world.

They may also help reveal more about how people interact with technology.

The project was devised entirely by about 20 Microsoft summer interns who have spent much of their free time designing and creating these high-tech gadgets — which can do everything from communicate to take photos and have a distinct “cuteness factor” — as an extraordinary experiment.

The idea was to “create something soulful enough that people are driven to help it along its journey, and invisible enough that it doesn’t get in the way of people telling their stories,” says David Rappaport, a second-year intern and one of the project’s leaders.

The interns have been hard at work in the Microsoft Garage, a place where people from all over the company can use world-class tools to turn wild ideas into reality, and have spent recent days completing the task of building the smiley contraptions.

“It’s more than just a device,” says Tej Gidvani, project manager of the effort.  “It’s something we want users to connect with.”

The project is a second act for a handful of the students, who interned at Microsoft last summer and worked on an after-hours effort to launch a balloon to the edge of space. Project Nimbus was an adventure that didn’t go exactly as hoped but had a dramatic, made-for-a-movie sort of ending.

But first, the story of Project Atlas: Each “Explorer” is a cheerful-looking box that has speakers for sound, LED lights that change the colors of its ears and the display of a Lumia 640 Windows phone visible in the back.

The team is planning to send 15 of them out “to explore the world” this week, giving them to people who’ve applied to be their initial “hosts.” And that’s where the fun begins.

The Explorers will begin interacting with their hosts in various ways, prompting users with messages and a range of different sounds, along with lights that change to indicate their moods.  Each will try to get people to share more about themselves through photos, videos and more.

They may ask people to show them a place they like or a favorite restaurant, for example. When their battery runs low, they’ll ask people to help them recharge.

And within a few days, they’ll ask to be brought to someone new. The hope is that they’ll get passed around wide geographical areas, each offering a unique peek into the lives of many different people.

The Explorers will upload what they capture on their journeys to the Project Atlas website, where you’ll see their current locations on a map of the world. Click on one, and you’ll see the places it’s been, along with the photos and footage it’s captured to help share the stories of the people it’s met along the way.

“One of the coolest parts is, you’ll have this Explorer, you’ll pass it along to someone else, and you can check back on the site in a week or two and see where it’s gone,” Gidvani explains. “You’ll see all the stuff it’s done and where it is now, and you’ll have this connection to this person you’ve never met who is using the Explorer right now.”

Rappaport says the project is a social experiment that the team hopes will result in some fascinating stories and shed some light on the ways people interact with technology.

Microsoft Distinguished Scientist Stevie Bathiche says his team, the Applied Sciences Group, helped finance the project. He says it’s a creative, clever idea that “will surely attract attention and buzz” as the interns learn “some of the most valuable skills in our industry.”

Such extra projects are “a big part of what the Microsoft internship experience is all about … to start with an idea and figure out how to make it come alive,” he says.

Microsoft’s University Recruiting Intern Program also provided financial support for the project, says Program Manager Heidi Dowling.

Project Atlas shows what can happen when a group of industrious interns with access to Microsoft’s resources and technology have the freedom and drive to create something remarkable.

“It would not have been possible without the Garage,” Rappaport says. “Having the space and the resources there has been what made this possible. The other thing is the financial support we’ve gotten, and the fact that basically everyone we’ve talked to about this has been willing to help in any way they can.”

The team used the Garage’s laser cutter to fabricate the Explorers’ outer shells from sheets of acrylic. They fashioned the ears using its 3D printer. Microsoft paid for the materials, including the Windows phones embedded in each Explorer, and the team built its website on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, Rappaport says.

“This is a very unique opportunity to be in a place where we have this idea, and we have the resources and people and support — both logistical and financial — to make it happen,” he says. “That’s something I can’t say I’ve encountered in this way anywhere but here.”

Rappaport is studying electrical and computer engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is wrapping up his internship with Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, where he’s helping create new technology for human computer interfaces — the details of which he says are currently a secret.

Gidvani, a master’s student at the University of Texas at Dallas, is finishing up his third Microsoft internship working on front-end features for the Xbox app on Windows 10.

Both men were among about 20 interns who were part of last year’s Project Nimbus, an effort to launch a balloon to the edge of space and allow the public to help control the camera capturing footage from its lofty heights.

After a busy summer working on it, they launched the balloon from a remote area of Washington State last August. It rose about 20 miles, according to Rappaport, but glitches during the launch caused the balloon to underinflate. It remained too low for too long. The electronics overheated, and the team lost communication with it.

The interns were still able to track its location using GPS, though, and eventually were able to determine that it had landed. They eagerly set out to retrieve it but were met with bad news: It had landed in the middle of a military base, in a firing zone where munitions are tested and unexploded ordnance posed a danger, Rappaport says.

Military guards told them there was no way they were getting their balloon back. For the team and those who were following the project in real time on Twitter, all the high hopes and hard work had come to a disappointing end.

Over lunch about a week later, Rappaport was still lamenting that they’d never see the balloon again. Suddenly, his phone buzzed. The balloon’s GPS system was notifying him it had shifted from the location where it fell. It was moving! But how? Rappaport was baffled. Then, his phone rang.

Rappaport says he was told that a team had rescued their prized balloon. The interns could come pick it up, along with the attached electronic equipment and some footage they hadn’t yet seen.

Rappaport said he “could not imagine a better ending.” As a thank you, he says, the team brought the military personnel a few cases of beer.

This year, Rappaport, Gidvani and several others who returned to Microsoft internships this year wanted to try something new. Others joined, and Project Atlas was born.

But why would interns dive into a major project that goes well beyond the duties of their day jobs, voluntarily devoting their nights and weekends to it? For this ambitious group, the real question is, why wouldn’t they?

“It’s cool, and it’s fun. I get a rush out of leading a team of interns to achieve something that individually, none of us could actually do,” Gidvani says. There’s also “the payoff — how if it works out, everyone’s going to be like, ‘Wow, it’s really cool.’ And we can say we did this.”