(This story by my predecessor, Sharon Pian Chan, ran in the print edition of The Seattle Times Oct. 17, 2011. – Janet I. Tu)
For decades, we controlled computers with a mouse and keyboard. The plastic mouse became a prosthetic for our hand, and the keyboard an extension of our fingers.
Microsoft researchers are searching for the next breakthrough that will bring the real and machine worlds even closer together.
Blurring the line between those worlds is a mission for Stevie Bathiche, a bioengineer who leads the Applied Sciences group at Microsoft. “A lot of what we do now is making the interface between man and machine seamless,” Bathiche said he wrote in a personal mission statement 10 years ago. More specifically, he wanted to make the machine feel less like a machine. “Be a part of the person’s life instead of the other way around.”
For the past few years, Bathiche has been building 3-D screens and cameras that make people on opposite sides of the globe seem as if they’re in the same room.
“I view him as one of the major people on a global basis” in 3-D displays and optics, said Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher who pioneered virtual reality and recently wrote the book “You Are Not a Gadget.” “He’s the most creative and productive engineer in that particular field working in the world today.”
Bathiche has been working on blending worlds for a while. In college, he built a car driven by a cockroach, his first experiment connecting the machine to the living world. He came up with the idea while studying to become an electrical engineer. He didn’t know much about bugs, so he knocked on the door of an entomology professor who studied insect nervous systems.
The professor, Jeffrey Bloomquist, told him how much work it would take. Bathiche disappeared.
“I was like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Bloomquist said. “That’s often true for undergraduates, because they find out how much work it requires, and they have to stay sober for the weekend.”
Six weeks later, knock, knock.
It was Bathiche, with a prototype toy car in his hands. Bathiche and his professor then connected electrodes from a roach’s wing plates to the car, put the car on the floor, and blew on the roach. The car took off.
Getting his start
Bathiche came to Microsoft as a college intern in 1995 and built software that ended up in Word’s grammar check. His email address during the internship, email@example.com, was easily mixed up with firstname.lastname@example.org, the address for Steve Ballmer — then a vice president, now Microsoft’s chief executive. Bathiche decided to go with StevieB, a college nickname.
The next year, NASA offered him an internship working on the robotic arm of a satellite. Bathiche thought the assignment was too constricting. The week he had to give NASA his answer on the offer, he called Microsoft. He was told to come up with something he wanted to work on. He went back to Microsoft for the summer and designed a new kind of gaming joystick. It became the SideWinder Freestyle Pro, a controller that sensed when you tilted it and was the first commercial gaming device to use accelerometers.
After the second Microsoft internship, Bathiche went to the University of Washington to get a master’s degree in bioengineering. He took the roach coach a step further at the UW and built the Mothmobile. Then he joined Microsoft full time.
By the age of 28, he and researcher Andy Wilson were pitching Bill Gates on a new interactive computer called the Surface. The coffee-table-size touch-screen computer has not achieved mass adoption, but it has drawn a lot of attention. People can play with it in the lobby of the Sheraton Seattle Hotel and in the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Seattle.
Bathiche considers the Surface a breakthrough because of its interaction between the world above the table and the virtual world underneath. The Surface was Bathiche’s looking glass.
(Continue reading the story here.)
(Photo of Stevie Bathiche by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)