Microsoft hosted a big event today to announce a new computer, the Surface Studio, new VR headsets, and new software the company hopes will appeal to creative types the world over (which Apple has pretty much locked up in recent years). But the real groundwork for today's announcements actually happened over six years ago.
In June 2010 I stood in the middle of a Los Angeles arena and watched as Cirque Du Soleil dancers helped introduce what would pave the way to a new era of computing.
The event, part of that year's E3 video game convention, marked the arrival of Kinect, Microsoft's motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360 that enabled Nintendo Wii-like experiences on a console perhaps best known for testosterone-fuelled rollercoaster rides like Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Halo.
At the time, covering the convention for TechCrunch, I didn't think much of Kinect: To me, the games weren't particularly exciting, and the idea of flailing my arms around to play a dancing game didn't exactly sound like fun.
Boy did I miss the point.
"[Kinect] was a big effort to really start making it so that [we could figure out] how we could use the life experience you already had as a main teaching mechanism for how you to interact with the tech," Kudo Tsunoda, corporate vice president of next generation experiences at Microsoft's Windows and Devices group, recently told me over Skype.
"Kinect was an exercise in human input."
Tsunoda should know: While today he's part of the team leading development of HoloLens, the augmented reality headset that's the closest thing Microsoft has to a "moon shot," back in 2010 he was in charge of Kinect, which, as I've since come to appreciate, was not so much about trying to cash in on the runaway success of the Wii than it was about fundamentally rethinking the way Microsoft lets humans interact with and use computers..
Kinect, Tsunoda continued, "was a lot more about using things that are inherent and known to you as a way of driving the interaction versus having to have people learn the language of the machine or how it works." Put it this way: It's a heck of a lot easier to get someone who didn't grow up with a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis controller in their hand to play something like Dance Central by, you know, actually dancing, than it would be to get them to understand how to effortlessly duck behind cover and blast away at the Locust Horde in Gears of War.
While Kinect's success as a dedicated gaming accessory was short-lived—sales were initially impressive, but gamers so quickly fell out of love with the device that the Xbox One no longer comes packaged with it—its underlying technologies can still be found in the crevices of other Microsoft software.
"Kinect was an exercise in human input," Alex Kipman, a technical fellow at Microsoft's Windows and Devices group, recently told me over Skype. "That same team that did speech in Kinect where you could say 'Xbox on,' 'Xbox off,' 'Xbox Bing Harry Potter,' is the same team that does Cortana." Other current Windows technologies, including Windows Hello, which lets users sign into their PC using a webcam, also trace their development to Kinect.
This idea of making computing accessible to people beyond geeks and early adopters (of which I am proudly both) gets to one of the core tenets of Motherboard: new technologies are constantly shaping our world in ways we couldn't possibly anticipate—if you predicted Uber or Snapchat when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, then congratulations on being a rich venture capitalist. ut the benefits of these transformations aren't usually immediately obvious, nor are they necessarily distributed equally. To continue with Uber: It's probably pretty cool to be on the ground floor, financially speaking, of the ridesharing revolution, but this revolution is perhaps less appealing when you're a driver begging passengers to leave you a five-star rating, all the while waiting for self-driving cars to put you out of work.
It just so happens that under CEO Satya Nadella, who's approaching his third year on the job, Microsoft thinks a lot like we do.
"If it were not for the democratizing force of technology reaching me where I was growing up [in India], my entire story wouldn't have been possible," Nadella recently told me over the phone. "So to some degree it's a fairly personal thing for me to, say, recognize at least what technology can do… Let's just make technology so ubiquitous, so ambient, that all human endeavor, across all countries, across all economic strata, can benefit from it. That's ultimately the dream."
Nadella and his top lieutenants hope to take another step toward making that dream of universally accessible computing a reality this week when they introduce a slew of apps and devices that build upon the foundations laid by Kinect and HoloLens and leverage the cross-platform capabilities of Windows 10.
On the software side of things comes the Paint 3D app, which offers the ability to easily create 3D with a digital pen or scanned with a mobile app, and bring these models into apps like PowerPoint and Minecraft. "You can pretty much take any 3D object and it's as simple to create a digital, 3D version of something from real life as it is like taking a video today," said Tsunoda, who noted that users will also be able to create simple holograms for HoloLens using the app.
As for hardware, Microsoft's Surface Studio is an iMac-like all-in-one PC that Microsoft hopes will continue the run of good luck it's hard with its homegrown PC, which quickly went from an unwanted oddity back in 2012 to among the best PCs you can buy today.
Both the Surface Studio and the ability to create and share 3D models with Paint 3D are part of Microsoft's efforts to ensure that the next-generation of computing is not only accessible to non-professionals—creating 3D objects typically requires use of expensive, specialized software like Autodesk's Maya—but that this next-generation of computing isn't merely defined by passively enjoying someone else's content.
"Let's just make technology so ubiquitous, so ambient, that all human endeavor, across all countries, across all economic strata, can benefit from it. That's ultimately the dream."
Of course, it's unlikely the Surface Studio will affordable to large swaths of people right out of the gate. While Microsoft has not confirmed pricing at time of publication, current high-end Surface devices clock in at more than $1,300. And the HoloLens, which is currently only intended for developers and not everyday consumers, is a cool $3,000. The future may be right around the corner, but it doesn't come cheap, and there's no guarantee Microsoft will be the one to introduce these concepts at a price point where they're affordable beyond the usual early adopters.
But if the underlying tech manages to trickle its way down prices that mere mortals can afford, Nadella will have continued the legacy of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who strove to expand computing's potential by putting a PC on every desk.
"The PC was great because it was both a consumption and production device," said Nadella. "The phone has primarily been a consumption device. And now I want us to be going back to, 'what is computing going to look like in our lives where we can have both consumption and production.' And why do I say that? Because that is what's going to get people all over the world an economic return. That's what you have to solve for. It's not a goal unto itself. Computing is only useful if people in the world are able to be able to get a better life, are able to realize their economic potential."
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