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Emily Alhadeffwritten by
Emily Alhadeff
Re: Inventing the wheel

If Microsoft designers have groupies, then they look like the chipper young guys who pop out from around corners at Studio B to greet Stevie Bathiche. Tagging behind Bathiche, distinguished scientist with Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group — an interdisciplinary team working on the next phase of interactive technologies — I feel like the rookie reporter in a geeky version of “Almost Famous.”

But if he’s famous, he doesn’t know it, or at least act like it. Bathiche is disarmingly humble and refreshingly honest. Tall and lanky, with long, rock star-quality black hair, he’s even a little goofy. Bonding over an appreciation for Italian coffee and discussing the nature of invention in the atrium outside his lab, I wonder aloud whether, had I been a resident of ancient Mesopotamia, I would have thought up the wheel. It seems so obvious, the ubiquitous wheel. But what kinds of obvious inventions are right in front of me right now that I’m not smart enough to think of?

Bathiche gives his macchiato a stir and looks me square in the eye. “I would not have thought of the wheel,” he says gravely.

“I am sure you would have thought of the wheel,” I insist.

I am sure the guy who came up with a cockroach-powered vehicle when he was 20 and holds 60 patents would have thought of the wheel.

“I would have not thought of the wheel.”

This is the kid who built a Van de Graaff generator in elementary school with his mother’s salad bowl domes.

“She was mad, because I put two holes in them and put them together” — but, he remembers with a laugh, “I put it together, and it ran and it worked. I was shocking myself!”

Born to Palestinian parents in Lebanon, Bathiche spent his early years moving around the world due to his father’s job opening offices for the airline transportation industry. He, his parents and two sisters lived in Queens, Sweden, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Texas before settling in Virginia. His first languages are Arabic and Swedish.

“I was always very intellectually curious about engineering,” he says. “I was not so good at English, but I was really good at math and science and physics.”

I try to break the laws of physics with my kids. Play is extremely important.

Bathiche’s transcontinental moves made friendships hard to maintain, and he spent a lot of time growing up alone with his ideas. Encouraged by his father to take things apart and play with them, Bathiche, now a father to two young daughters, tries to pass down a passion for curiosity.

“I try to break the laws of physics with my kids,” he says. “Play is extremely important.”

Building up from the salad bowl-electric shock machine as a kid to robots in high school, by college Bathiche was pondering social biology and thinking about ways technology could improve biology. With the help of a skeptical entomology professor, he rewired a toy dune buggy (no joke) to receive electrical impulses from a cockroach’s wings. When the wings moved, the signals sent to the car through electrodes set it in motion on the first try.

Stevie reading to his children

The project wasn’t just for kicks. It was Bathiche’s attempt to get closer to inventing a wheelchair for people unable to use any of their muscles to control it, and what drove him to obtain a master’s in bioengineering at the University of Washington. This was the thinking that ended up creating the SideWinder Freestyle Pro PC gamepad during a college internship with Microsoft.

After grad school, Bathiche (along with colleagues Andy Wilson and David Kurlander) pitched this crazy idea to Bill Gates: a 30-inch tabletop computer that responded to touch. Popular Mechanics called it “a coffee table that will change the world.”

That’s called Surface now. (And it’s a bit smaller than a coffee table.) Today, Bathiche and his team are working on ways to make Surface computing more perceptive, closing the distance between the human and the screen — knocking down the “fourth wall” between machine and experience.

“Stevie never thinks of things the way they are,” said Panos Panay, vice president for Surface Computing. “His mindset has always been, ‘look at what there is and how that contributes to what should be better.’”

“We’re sort of technology explorers,” Bathiche says as he thrusts open the door to the Applied Sciences Group lab.

We’re sort of technology explorers.

Inside, hard at work harnessing light and refining holograms, the 20 engineers on his team look like serious children focusing on precocious hobbies. Computers line the walls, producing optical illusions and engaged in experiments that, at some point, may redefine not just computing, but reality as we know it. Bathiche’s favorite part of the job is breaking down technology to understand its nature and its implications. As if he were talking about sculpting or metalwork, “the deeper you understand it,” he says, “the better you can wield it to create.”

At a screen with a 3-dimensional teapot floating in the center, sensors register my eyes, and as I turn my head the teapot moves according to my perspective.

“Oh my gosh,” I gasp. “It’s responding to me.”

“We’re going from a 2-dimensional flat world to breaking that fourth wall,” he says. The next step would be to reach out and grab the teapot.

Across the aisle sits a screen on which, ultimately, two individuals will be able to watch different programs at the same time, or even play videogames against one another. Further down, Bathiche shows off a screen that will more intuitively respond to the user’s needs. The grand vision — years off yet — is the “magic window,” a screen that will connect individuals in different locations as authentically as possible, bringing humans the closest they have ever come to teleportation.

“Imagine in your home you have this one wall dedicated to teleportation,” Bathiche explains. “It’s not really teleportation; it’s a window to another world. You can actually trick your brain into thinking you’re looking behind the wall. We want to digitally connect people as if they’re in the same room.”

But, hey, Microsoft, Beavis and Butthead called: They want their virtual reality machine back. It’s ridiculously cool, but does it serve a practical need?

“We’re a big believer in connecting people and connecting the world,” Bathiche says, echoing Microsoft’s vision of reinventing productivity. Technology is simply the latest and greatest tool to achieve more, and faster.

“I have an Edison phonograph from the turn of the century. It’s portable music in 1900. That’s mind-blowing to me, because people have always wanted to listen to music wherever they want to be. Technology doesn’t necessarily change fundamental behavior and needs in people. It just changes how people meet those needs.”

In other words, by breaking down the fourth wall and causing the screen between the actual world and the digital world to disappear, computing can bring the human experience to a new level. It may not seem like it, but we’re living in a 2D, flat, monochromatic little world.

Technology doesn’t necessarily change fundamental behavior and needs in people. It just changes how people meet those needs.

“Stevie’s vision of breaking down the fourth wall is something he’s been striving for forever,” said Panay. “Microsoft will enable it. And we’ve only seen the tip of it.”

“Having the screen see things in front of it helps it understand the user’s intention,” Bathiche says. “‘I’m going to give you some special glasses, but they only allow you to see this far.’ That’s what computers are today.”

For Bathiche, whose obsession with sensors was the driving force behind his bioengineering master’s thesis, it’s also the nature of reality.

“Sensors and measuring the world is really interesting to me,” he said. “When I went to Japan I bought a Geiger counter. I carried it with me all the time to see how the world looks radiation-wise. You don’t want to look at it on the airplane.”

Bathiche’s thesis used sensors to study the relationship between heart health and muscle composition. He muses about the possibility of a chip that could monitor activity levels and daily health choices, providing individuals with the information to make smarter decisions. His wide-angle vision inspires him to buy all sorts of sensors to study what’s going on behind the scenes, as it were — heat, light, formaldehyde, and so on.

Stevie working on a 3-dimensional display

“There’s massive amounts of information and we can only see ‘this much,’” he says.

“You want the user to feel things are real,” he says. “And when things feel real, people start to act real.”

In Bathiche’s lab, a few stations down from the responsive teapot, a floating display produces an image of Earth. It hovers in front of me. I reach out and touch it, and it spins like a basketball on the tip of my finger, slowing and speeding up according to the placement of my hand.

“This has huge implications for engineers,” Bathiche explains. “You basically have a solar system in your hands. It’s a very natural and intuitive way of looking at information. That’s what we do in the real world. It’s making it easier for people to use computers to use information and look at it in a much more powerful manner.

“We’re giving people tools to build things better,” Bathiche says. “That’s how you create the wheel.”

Originally published on 11/3/2014 / Photos by Lucien Knuteson / © Microsoft
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