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Meet Microsoft, the world's best kept R&D secret

Matt Smith | Jan. 3, 2013
As far as 99.9 per cent of the world population is concerned, Microsoft is a stodgy, old-guard technology company. Its bottom line is fully leveraged against PC operating systems and business software--hardly the building blocks of a future-thinking portfolio, right?

Fortaleza is not Microsoft's only experimentation with augmented reality and wearable peripherals. The company has demonstrated a wrist-mounted gadget, called Digits, which can translate a user's hand movements directly into a virtual space. This concept lets users control a PC without direct interaction or a Kinect-like system--which would be useful if you're on the go. Researchers are also looking at small-scale augmented reality with Kinect-derived technology that lets users manipulate projected objects.

Holodeck and its related virtual research projects are awesome, but augmented reality is a more likely near-term goal. Wearable computing will be hitting store shelves in the next few years--if not from Microsoft, then from Google--so there's a real need for the company to invest in this future.

Cloud computing's continued evolution

All of the projects we've touched on so far are real, concrete research that has produced real, concrete results in the lab. That kind of research isn't cheap... which is why it's surprising to learn that projects like these take up only 10 per cent of Microsoft's R&D budget. The rest the $9.6 billion dollar tab is being rung up by the cloud computing division.

Windows 8 already takes steps toward the cloud. Users can sign in with their Windows Live account and access SkyDrive to store and share files. Office 2013 can use this storage to automatically sync files and settings between multiple PCs. This approach works both online and offline and is integrated in the Office interface.

The leaked Xbox document provided another example of how this research will let Microsoft offer new capabilities. It referred to the use of cloud computing to create a console with becomes more powerful over time. This would be accomplished by off-loading some compute tasks to remote servers. A feature like that, if it worked as advertised, would give the company a huge edge in the ongoing console wars.

It's easy to imagine syncing a PC's entire hard drive to the cloud, or apps that can run on multiple versions of Windows through cloud-powered virtualization, or cloud compute "upgrades" that let users temporarily speed up their PC. And if those uses can be imagined, well, it's hard to say what Microsoft might be working on behind closed doors, especially when you watch the video above, which puts images to the company's vision of a productive, connected future.

Microsoft: More innovative than you'd think

Some pundits speak about Microsoft as if it's already dead--a shambling, stuffy company sustained by locked-in legacy software and little else. Microsoft certainly has challenges ahead of it, but as I've outlined today, the company does not have its head stuck in the sand.

Redmond spends more on R&D than Google and Apple combined. Think about that the next time someone tells you Microsoft doesn't have a future.


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