About 100 people — distinguished academics from around the U.S. and Microsoft researchers — gathered at the Redmond campus today to celebrate Microsoft Research’s 20th anniversary.
Microsoft Research is the part of the company that has worked on technologies such as speech recognition or motion sensors that have worked their way into products like Bing, Kinect and Xbox. “Nearly every product Microsoft ships includes technology from Microsoft Research,” according to a slide shown at the celebration this morning that included brief speeches and video demos of current research areas.
The beginnings of Microsoft Research goes back to a memo former Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold wrote to Bill Gates in 1990, saying Microsoft should have a research division focusing on expanding the state of the art in each of the areas in which Microsoft is involved, rapidly transferring the technologies into Microsoft products, and ensuring that the company’s products have a future.
Today, Microsoft Research employs about 850 researchers worldwide in six major research labs in Redmond, Silicon Valley, New England, England, China and India.
Research these days is focused in the three areas of big data, natural user interface, and machine learning, Microsoft Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid said.
He demonstrated some specific projects arising from those areas in a series of videos showing Tiger (a behind-the-scenes technology that improves search services), Omnitouch (where a computer “screen” is projected onto a surface like a notepad, desk or even a hand or arm and the computer can be activated by pressing the buttons projected onto the surface), and Augmented Reality (which combines the capability of a tablet augmented by data stored in the cloud).
Rashid took time after the presentation to meet with a few reporters. To a question about some shareholders’ view that research should more directly contribute to the success of product groups, he responded by saying, “That’s not the way to do it.”
While products have to be managed with a specific delivery date and goal in mind, research isn’t done that way, he said. “You have to have been already doing the research,” he said. “Research is about being ready when somebody comes to you with a problem or opportunity.”
Groups at Microsoft were working on speech recognition and 3-D computer graphics before most people cared about them. “But when the company needed it, we were there,” Rashid said.