The future according to Microsoft
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1998. First
appeared in Computer Player, March 1998
Dr. Daniel T. Ling is being paid to create the future.
As director of Microsoft?s 2 billion dollar research
effort, he heads
a team of 250 (expected to grow to 600 over the next three years),
with exploring emerging trends in computer software, and with
?new technologies for improving the way computers interact with
He presented his vision as one of four keynote speakers at Vancouver?s
PacRim Comdex this past January.
Currently, Dr. Ling suggests, we use our computers as
tools?in the future,
they will become our assistants. This will be a dramatic change, more
perhaps, than the change from a command-line DOS-style interface to the
common graphical Mac/Windows interface? a change that will make the
interface a human interface
To make this possible will involve change in a variety
of areas, all
being actively pursued by Microsoft Research.
Instead of clicking and typing, Ling foresees the
ability to hold a
conversation with your computer. This will let you experience
computing, an experience that voice-dictation software is starting to
But the future, Dr. Ling suggests, will see computers that not only
individual words, but also understand the meaning of speech. To get
Microsoft Research is having computers ?read? entire dictionaries,
a ?semantic links database? attempting to map the connections between
Add in a dollop of probability theory, and you get a computer that
to be able to know that in the sentence ?I saw the Grand Canyon flying
to Arizona?, it wasn?t the Grand Canyon that was doing the flying.
This research has already begun to pay off. As far
back as Office 95?s
Answer Wizard, Microsoft Research was working with these
what words actual users would use to ask questions about what concepts,
in order to (on a good day) enable the help engine respond
to natural language questions. More recently, their research has been
in Office 97?s grammar checker. Dr. Ling expects it will soon appear in
web search engines that, by adding some understanding of the meaning of
words in a query, should be able to cut down on the thousands of false
responses that show up in too many of today?s searches.
Ling expects this to bring us ?software software?,
making PCs seem more
intelligent. That requires that they be able to cope better with
by being able to evaluate which response is the most probable, and to
from our interaction with them.
Microsoft also wants your computer to see you. In the
near future, they
suggest that many computers will be equipped with cameras for video
That gives users the hardware needed to allow your computer to respond
to your motions and facial expressions? ?all? that?s needed is the
Current experiments include screensavers that turn themselves off when
someone approaches the computer, and a tic-tac-toe game that lets a
mark a square just by looking at it.
Future interfaces will involve 3D and video? making a
that perhaps will owe more to the current crop of Nintendo-64 games
to the look and feel of (say) Windows 98. Right now, a freely available
product of Microsoft Research is Comic Chat?changing the way Internet
rooms work, by evolving the interface from lines of text to a familiar
comic book metaphor. Coming up will be 3D V-Chat, turning the flat, 2D
comic strip environment into a richer, 3D setting more like a video
On another level, Microsoft Research hopes to bring us
the world? literally.
Along with Digital Equipment, they?re involved in Terra Server, a
to bring the entire world online. No, not by giving us all Internet
but by posting a multi-terrabyte (that?s trillions of bytes) database
images of the Earth, obtained both from US Geological Survey flights
Russian satellite pictures. Users will be able to close-focus in on the
images, down to an ultimate resolution of 1-2 square meters? in other
be able to see actual cars parked in the street in front of your house
(at least at the time the picture was taken).
Look for Terra Server to be available on-line
soon?perhaps by the time
this article appears in print.
Increasingly powerful, affordable computers will power
computer as word-processor productivity tool to computer as more
intelligent, adaptive (as well as simpler) communications and
Should be fun!
(Check in with Microsoft Research at http://research.microsoft.com)