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Microsoft Leader Spends Day on Campus

Craig Mundie says we need computers that interact more like people

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October 5, 2011 | by Megan Fellman

Craig Mundie, the man who filled Bill Gates’ shoes at Microsoft Corporation, yesterday discussed the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds and showed off some of the cutting-edge technology coming out of Microsoft Research at Northwestern University’s N. W. Harris Distinguished Lecture.

The chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft spent the day on the Evanston campus, meeting with faculty and students and touring labs. His visit culminated in a talk, “Converging Worlds: A New Era in Computing,” which he delivered to a rapt audience, including many area high school students, in the Ryan Family Auditorium in the Technological Institute.

Chad A. Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Mundie and called him a “truly visionary thinker.” Mirkin and Mundie serve together on President Barack Obama’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Mundie, who oversees one of the world’s largest computer science research organizations, said computers need to change dramatically to serve the world’s billions of users.

“The traditional interfaces where we are pointing, clicking and touching have to give way to a much more natural model of human interaction with the computer,” he said. “We can start to give the computer the ability to be less of a tool and more of a helper …where interacting with it is a lot more like interacting with another person.”

Some of the technology Mundie demonstrated included Avatar Kinect, which brings you and your friends together in a virtual common space; Microsoft Tags for finding information instantly on the fly, such as during a music festival; a smartphone that uses local context to quickly locate the closest screening of a movie or easily translate a menu from French to English; and the ability to tap into huge public data sets and map the data using powerful visualization tools, such as showing how much it really rains in Seattle (not as much as people think).

Mundie discussed how, as computers get more powerful, they can hear and see through the use of microphones and cameras (“digital eyeballs”). The computational capabilities of a laptop or even a phone are getting to the point where, coupled with the right technology and algorithms, stunning things can be done, such as guiding a blind person using walking navigation instructions delivered from his or her phone.

“These things really start to create an environment where we can imagine a lot of things that we used to do in the physical world, now doing them with some cyber assist,” Mundie said.

After his presentation, Mundie gave away Xbox 4GB Kinect Bundles and Windows Phone 7.5 devices to audience members. He also answered questions, and then the audience was invited onto the stage to interact with the various devices he had demonstrated.