How Microsoft Thinks of Wearables and Smart Devices

The Internet of making your life better.

wenger giant swiss army knife
Credit: Wenger

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has talked about the opportunity of connected devices and the more than 200 billion sensors he expects to see. But so far, Microsoft has stuck to handing out developer hardware kits to build your own Internet of things devices. Those kits are currently based on Intel's Galileo board -- a cut-down PC system with no video and the ability to connect Arduino shields.

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What developers can do with Windows for IoT is still something of a moving target, and it's limited by the CPU Intel has put into the Quark system-on-a-chip (SoC) on the Galileo boards, which doesn't have the full set of instructions you'd need to run full .NET (instead of the.NET Micro Framework other IoT boards like Netduino support), so currently you get a stripped down version of Windows with C++ and only part of .NET.

Intel is promising to make future Quark systems more powerful and far smaller; at the Build conference this year Terry Myerson talked about something "the size of a pencil eraser or mouse cursor" and speculated about "what kind of devices are possible when a PC is the size of an eraser." What Microsoft wants is a low-power SoC that's small enough to fit into a mug or a child's car seat or any other everyday object and make it smart. Few of those have a screen, hence the lack of video.

Unlike many of the companies churning out hardware designed to build smart, connected objects for the Internet of Things, what Microsoft hopes to bring to the table (or the back seat of the car and all the other places we'll use smart objects) is a familiar developer model. If it can get .NET and C++ and JavaScript running on Windows IoT hardware, developers could create a universal app that runs on Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox, and IoT -- and the interface for your smart object can be on the object if the form factor allows it, and on any of your other devices if it doesn't.

Really, the interface should be on whichever device makes sense and is most convenient. We already have multiple devices -- phones, tablets, PCs, entertainment devices. That's going to get far worse with smart objects. Wouldn't it be nice if working multiple devices got easier the more of them you have rather than more complicated?

Too many devices mean digital indigestion

When Nadella laid out his vision about productivity at the partner conference this summer, it reminded me of what Microsoft principal researcher Bill Buxton has been saying about ubiquitous computing for a while. Technology doesn't always make things simpler, Nadella pointed out. "In all this abundance of computing power, what is scarce? It's human attention, it's time. …with all this abundance of applications, data, devices, also comes complexity."

Buxton has been looking at the idea of making computing disappear into your everyday life since 1989, when he worked with Marc Weiser at Xerox PARC; Weiser came up with the term ubiquitous computing, suggesting we'd end up with big screens (boards), tablet size screens (pads), and tiny screens (tabs).

Smartwatches sound much like tabs, but ubiquitous computing isn't actually about having devices everywhere. It's about always being able to get what you need, invisibly. For that, Buxton says, you need "the right thing, in the right place, at the right time, for the right person, for the right price."

That's doable, but we have to get the context right. You don't pay attention to your dining room table unless it's got dinner on it, or it's in the wrong place.

"When ubiquitous computing works you don’t even notice there's a computer there. But when things are everywhere, it's easy to make the mistake where I put the dining room table in the bedroom and the toilet in the living room," says Buxton. You don't want your personal email on your big screen TV where everyone in the family will see it if you're watching a movie.

And just having more and more devices, however great they are individually, quickly turns into a recipe for disaster. Buxton -- who has been collecting gadgets for three decades and keeps a virtual museum on his web site -- calls it the Crackerjack principle. "The more you eat, the more you want. The iPhone led and everybody followed and now we're making all these gadgets, all these apps… You keep eating them because it's so great but you get full. At a certain point I'm just going to be sick and throw up."

The way to avoid the gadget version of indigestion is to tackle the problem of complexity and how quickly we get to the point of frustration. Individually gadgets are getting easier to use, but using them together is just too hard. Using your phone to get your tablet online or to post photos from your DSLR camera could be far easier than it is. And just look at the pile of remote controls in the average living room.

Compare that to using your phone in your car: When it's done right, you can't do as much on your phone -- like playing games or browsing the web -- but you get much better phone calls thanks to the microphones in the car. And making a hands-free phone call is a much better fit when you're driving than playing games on a screen you can’t look at. Put the two together right and they both become simpler to use.

"By combining multi technologies in the right place, in the right way, at the right time, with intelligent design, we can make the technology disappear and it becomes about the conversation not the device," promises Buxton. "But we need to start considering a society of devices and how they come together."

Buxton has plenty of examples of ways we ought to be able to make life simpler as we get more sensors and smart objects. Imagine you're in the middle of a call on your smartphone and you walk over to your Xbox One and Kinect; why can't you automatically carry on the conversation using the far better microphone in the Kinect?

Or if you're using your phone and Bing Maps to navigate as you walk down the street; do you want to be clutching your phone the whole way, swiveling your head from the screen and back to the street and dodging everyone else who's heads down gazing at their phone? Directions on a smart watch aren't any better.

Instead Buxton imagines you getting the navigation on your phone -- and then putting it back in your pocket. "You just follow the blinking red dot that will appear in the left corner of any ad you walk past so you know you're going the right way. The ad people love this because I'm imprinting on all the ads because I have to look at them to find the dot. But I can also be having a conversation as I walk, I'm not going to step in dog doo, I can look around and enjoy the weather. We've turned the way ads work on its head; because now I have a 'popup' that gives me real value, rather than an ad that annoys me that I only bear with because it gives me something for free."

The Internet of making your life better

Done right, wearables and smart objects and the sensors in the Internet of Things will turn the way of lot of things work on their head. The important question, according to Buxton: "Now that we can build anything, what should we build?"

As Forrester's J P Gownder recently pointed out, a smartwatch can't just be a shrunken smartphone; it has to be a device that's natural to use in the "mobile moments" when you need something relevant, more quickly than you could get it by pulling out your phone. It's still not clear what we're going to use wearable devices for that our phones can't already do, and it's likely that they won't take off until what we get are natural experiences that make us more productive.

And productive doesn't just mean "getting more done at work;" it means getting more done in any way that makes your life easier. That's what makes Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant part of the "ambient intelligence" Nadella has been promising rather than just a friendly voice to text system. Getting a warning that the meeting you're scheduling falls in the middle of your child's football match, or getting the reminder to pick up milk as you walk past any branch of your favorite grocery (rather than at the time you'd predicted you'd walk past the shop when, in fact, you're still stuck in traffic) can make you a lot more productive personally.

With Cortana, I find it takes a lot less effort to get through all the things I need to get done. And the more information smart objects can tell you about the world around you, the more helpful those reminders can be.

The "dual user" phrasing Nadella uses when he talks about re-inventing productivity is a clunky way of expressing something very important; these days people "who use technology both at work and in their personal lives" means just about all of us. Anyone who juggles family, work commitments, hobbies and a social life -- which also means pretty much all of us -- would like some help with getting everything done. But we don't want it at the expense of jumping through hoops to make all the technology that should be helping us work better together. If you have to fumble around in that "mobile moment" you'll give up on smart objects.

So will we see a consumer smartwatch, wearable, or smart object technology from Microsoft any time soon? Only if Microsoft thinks it can get the experience right, give you what you need as you move between work and personal life, and fit in with the right context -- and tie it in with Microsoft services.

This story, "How Microsoft Thinks of Wearables and Smart Devices" was originally published by CITEworld.

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