Microsoft is on a good run. Over the past half-decade, it has released a popular new desktop operating system, built multiple award-winning PCs that’ve pushed the industry forward, and established itself as a leader in exciting new fields, including augmented reality and artificial intelligence.
These victories have changed the company. Once thought of as stodgy and slow, Microsoft now looks lean and agile. It stands toe-to-toe with Alphabet (the parent company of Google) in world rankings, and its NASDAQ stock price has more than doubled since 2013.
It’s easy to imagine this turn-around as a victory for Windows 10, Surface, Azure, or CEO Satya Nadella, who took the reins in 2014 – and such congratulations would not be misplaced. Yet the story of Microsoft’s comeback isn’t just about stock prices and executive appointments. Equal credit can be given to the company’s tradition of innovative research — conducted by scientists like Steven Bathiche.
Microsoft wants to give you what you need
Bathiche, an 18-year veteran of Microsoft, is tall, lanky, and seems constantly in motion, even when he’s standing still. His title of Distinguished Scientist doesn’t imply any specific authority over Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, which he leads, and it doesn’t have to. His demeanor expresses a calm, driven curiosity that instantly beckons the inner inventor.
“At the end of the day, people’s needs are 1s and 0s.”
The philosophy behind his research mirrors his personable attitude. When Digital Trends sat down with him at Microsoft’s campus, he wasted no time describing the core tenets that drive his team.
“Technology doesn’t change what people need or want. It just changes how they meet those needs,” Bathiche explained. And what are those needs? They’re what you’d expect – security, entertainment, communication.
“In the old days, when we didn’t have video technology, you had people sitting around the campfire telling stories,” Bathiche said. “We went from caveman days of talking about and spreading stories to today, when you can watch video anytime, anywhere, of almost anything.” Technology may change, but people are always people, and people always want to communicate and entertain. Every revolutionary new device respects that, and finds an innovative way to fill a need.
“At the end of the day, people’s needs are 1s and 0s, which is just data,” said Bathiche. “Computing technology is about people, and their information.”
Cutting-edge research, Microsoft’s secret foundation
Evidence of this approach is easy to see in Microsoft’s Surface line, but it didn’t begin there. Bathiche first worked at Microsoft as an intern in 1995, before joining the company in 1999. Even then, he had an eye for how people use technology.
One of his first projects at Microsoft investigated how people could use inertial sensors to control 3D games. “One of the things I noticed, as I played a lot of console games, was that when people drive their kart around [in Mario Kart], they kinda lean. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the gaming device actually sensed that?”
Bathiche began prototyping a device that used accelerators as a means of input, but soon ran into challenges that went beyond the capabilities of hardware. “The thing I noticed is that when you put all the degrees of freedom into a single [device],” he explained, “it’s kind of hard to use. People would mix them up.”
The solution, it turned out, was a gamepad that used sensors to control only a limited range of movement – Microsoft’s Sidewinder Freestyle Pro. It was the first commercial device to use accelerometers, technology now common in all manner of electronics. Modern games that use accelerometers take a similar tact, limiting motion control movement to tilting left or right, or to another set plane of motion.
Today’s gamers simply assume that motion controls will only work within a limited range, but in the late 90s, when accelerometers were rare, the right way to do it wasn’t clear. A solution became clear only after experimentation with working prototypes.
This hands-on approach can be found in countless other projects, some of which were far ahead of their time. When Apple announced the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, for instance, tech enthusiasts remembered the efforts of Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, which started research into what was internally called “Adaptive Hardware” in 1999, the year he was hired. Bathiche’s own notes, which imagine a keyboard using a “strip of electronic paper” over dome key switches, are immortalized on the Group’s website.
Surface first appeared in 2007, not as a 2-in-1, but as an interactive table.
No consumer device was birthed directly from that idea, but that doesn’t mean the research was pointless. The experimentation led by Bathiche’s team is needed to separate revolutionary ideas from interesting duds. It’s hard to tell which will be which, even after years of iteration.
“The original Surface was a perfect example,” said Bathiche. “It was the first mixed reality device. You had a computer understanding what was happening on the surface, you had objects you could put on top. You had this virtual-physical object interaction that could happen.”
Surface first appeared in 2007 not as a 2-in-1, but as an interactive table. Codenamed Milan, it used cameras connected to the table to help it respond to touch, or even objects laid on the table’s surface. It was a fun concept that made for great demos, but its best use didn’t become clear until years later.
“A touchscreen is in fact a spatial camera,” Bathiche told us, helping to draw the connection. “It’s trying to see your intent on the screen, and it maps that to a virtual thing.” The technology in today’s Surface Pro is far more precise, and far smaller, than anything in the Milan concept — but a PC built for direct interaction, through touch and through objects, was always the goal.
Microsoft could’ve thrown in the towel after Milan, deciding it was too heavy, too large, too complex. Instead it played the long game, and remained faithful that people want to interact more directly with their PC, even if no one knew exactly what that’d look like in practice.
“We realized when we had heavy competition from Apple, that we had to innovate in the PC space,” Bathiche recalled. “That recognition happened. It happened with [former CEO] Steve Ballmer, it happened with [former President of the Windows Division] Steven Sinofsky. They saw this team […] and said ‘let’s go build a new computer.’”
Building tomorrow’s PC, piece by piece
The success of Surface has given the company’s design excellence well-deserved attention, and the sudden appearance of its cutting-edge PCs left many wondering what changed. The answer, according to Bathiche, is nothing.
“People think that we’re kind of new to hardware,” he said. “We’ve been doing hardware for 30 years. Maybe we’re new to building computers, but not really, we’ve been doing it now for six or seven years. If you count the original Surface table we’ve been doing it for a decade.”
In fact, Microsoft has shipped hardware from its infancy. The company’s Hardware Division, founded in 1982, crafted its first mouse in 1983 and has since worked on everything from PC speakers to interactive toys. This experience came invaluable when Microsoft decided to commit itself to a game console. “The only reason the company was able to ship [Xbox] within a year,” Bathiche said, “was because they had a hardware division. Those people who shipped Xbox were the people who were building mice, keyboards, gaming devices.”
Importantly, this expertise is practical. “We build functional prototypes, and then we try it, and we put people in front of it,” Bathiche told us – and followed up with a whirlwind tour through the company’s prototyping facility. His team doesn’t have to wait to implement an idea, because everyone works just a few feet away from a small-scale production line that includes 3D printers, CNC machines, and a collection of premium materials, such as the Alcantara that’s become part of the Surface brand.
“This was hard,” Bathiche said proudly of the Surface Laptop’s fabric interior. “No one’s done this before, putting fabrics on a keyboard with new frayed edges.” Such innovation is only possible because Microsoft puts its innovators in front of the tools they need to produce a working prototype that looks very much like the final product. “Everything is prototyped here first. That’s how we do all our new concepts. Which I think is an important distinction – not all computer companies do that.”
Satya Nadella, in a 2014 memo, mandated that “each engineering group will have Data and Applied Science resources that will focus on measurable outcomes for our products and predictive analysis of market trends.”
Now, Microsoft is taking that a step further by putting its Devices Design Team under the same roof as the Applied Sciences Group. The new space, which is under construction at Microsoft Building 87, will have the inventive geniuses at the Group work side-by-side with the creative minds that imagined Surface’s unique look.
What do you do after you invent the next PC? You do it again
The release of Surface has given the Applied Sciences Group plenty to do, and Bathiche remains interested in tearing down the barriers between man and machine. The pen, for instance, remains a key focus. “On the hardware side, we want to innovate to be like paper. On the software side, we want to be better than paper, we want to go beyond paper.”
Bathiche and his team is looking forward to its newest horizon, a concept called Ambient Computing.
Yet success hasn’t bound the Group to Microsoft’s new hardware. Instead, Bathiche and his team is looking forward to its newest horizon, a concept called Ambient Computing. He sees a future where advanced sensors and artificial intelligence will combine to make the PC ever-present, usable even when you’re nowhere near a keyboard, mouse, or screen.
“The big evolution today […] is this new layer of intelligence. This takes the information people have generated, with their hardware devices, using applications as a media, and helps you intuit on that information, makes it work on your behalf.” Bathiche went on to say Microsoft wants “to create a vicious cycle of people and their information. The more information we can help people communicate, the more we’ll be able to intuit, the more value we’ll be able to create for the person.”
Prototypes of this, which are already underway, remain under wraps, but Microsoft’s last Build conference hinted at what’s next. There, the company showed several high-concept demos, including a workplace where computers identified workers by sight and sound, and could even determine when a worker picked up equipment he wasn’t certified to use. Such a network of sensors and intelligence could, in many situations, erase the need for a physical interface altogether, removing one more barrier between PC and user. Computers could transition away from a device you use and instead become a constant companion.
That, of course, ties right back into the mission of Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, and Bathiche’s philosophy of needs and wants. The world has become used to the idea of physical electronic devices, but nothing about our needs or wants demands we sit down in front of a PC – for most uses, at least. Bypassing the hardware may seem a dangerous proposition for Microsoft, but the company wants to make the next leap forward – whatever that might be — before anyone else. “We try to invent new ways you talk to the computer, and the computer talks back to you,” Bathiche said, “because we want to invent the next computer.”
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