Pointing the way forward for Microsoft research
THE TECH sector has seen much innovation in recent years, as smartphone popularity explodes and new devices such as tablets make an impression in the market.Computers have become more ubiquitous in our daily lives, being used in everything from our smartphones to our cars.
As Microsoft prepares to unveil the next version of its operating system, Windows 8, the definition of what constitutes a computer is about to get even more blurred.
Bill Buxton is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, an initiative that is involved in some of the company’s major innovations, such as Kinect and Surface.
The 63-year-old French Canadian’s CV is impressive. He is a respected author on design and innovation, and he has also had his own design and consulting company.
Buxton began working with Microsoft in 2005, a couple of years after parting ways with Alias|Wavefront, where he was chief scientist. He paints a picture of a future where the computer as we currently known it will cease to exist. They will instead be embedded into the environment around us – our cars, our offices, our wallets.
“The computer is going to become ever more hidden,” he says. “One day, nobody will be buying a computer.”
Microsoft’s reputation as an innovator has taken somewhat of a hammering in recent months, with a Vanity Fair article announcing that it had “lost its mojo”. Why, then, did Buxton opt to work with the firm?
“In research, it’s all about who you get to play with. It’s like football: if you were in the Netherlands you’d want to play with Ajax. Everything else works out if you’re happy and you love what you’re doing, and you care about the people you’re doing it with,” he says.
“Microsoft had a really interesting appeal. I’m a child of the 1960s and I still have that element in me, the naivety and also the arrogance maybe you can help change the world.
“It struck me that if you could in fact help bring some insight about design and some of the human aspects of technology – what if you actually succeeded? There are a billion people a day who use the products.”
When you think of innovative design, Microsoft is not usually the first company that springs to mind. But that was precisely what piqued his interest, he says.
“Why would you go to a place that had great design and was executing well on that side of things? Because then you never find out if you are any good.
“It’s a great research environment in a place where you can challenge with the skills built and see if you can come and help a company through change. Microsoft was in transition, and I wanted to see it first hand.”
Getting overlooked may not necessarily be a bad thing either, he says.