Microsoft: Space is the new frontier in computing

Head of research arm talks up a touchable, multi-core future

Touschscreen demonstration

We're now moving into a client-cloud era where "space is indeed the new frontier". That's the verdict of the head of Microsoft's Research lab in Cambridge.

"Computing, on about a 10-15 year cycle completely reinvents itself," said Dr Andrew Herbert, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Cambridge in a keynote speech today attended by TechRadar. "Obviously the PC itself was one of those waves, the internet and web another. Those things are crucially dependent on software...that's the bread and butter [of what we do here]."

As well as new ways of interaction, devices are also becoming more intelligent, says the research head. "The systems are becoming much more aware of the context in which they're operating," explained Herbert. "Mobile phones know where they are. MS Surface, immersive gaming experiences; those things are all coming together. [Things are] much more personalised with speech and gestures. If you had a piece of software that could talk to you in a more humanised way, would it make a difference?"

Making Ballmer smile

Herbert says Microsoft Research's independence from commercially minded aspects of the company is what sets it apart from other companies' research arms: "We don't have to go to the product groups for funding and we set our own agenda."

"It means we can have a long range vision. Research doesn't start with people getting up in the morning and thinking 'what new thing can I add to Windows'," he added. "When it became apparent the internet was going to be important, it was Microsoft Research who made the protocols. We've had a very significant impact on the company," said Herbert, adding that it was also responsible for the first version of Microsoft's web search.

"My researchers can do anything providing I can tell a story to Steve Ballmer – and it may take a while – and it leaves a smile on his face."

Multicore the key

Herbert also stressed the role of multi-core tech in future computing. We were shown a demo of a virtual reality receptionist, which fully loaded an 8-core machine. "Your mobile phone is also becoming a supercomputer in your pocket. That gives us many challenges," he added.

"The dominant theme is understanding how software, the internet and devices are going to play together and what user experiences are going to be like," said Herbert. "It took Windows 10 years and four releases to outsell MS DOS," he added, stressing that we need to 'rethink computing' in this new many core age.

The head of the Cambridge lab also talked about the reasons for Microsoft having a worldwide research presence. "Not all the best computing talent is found in the US. And so if you want to tap into the worldwide pool of expertise, you need to bring your lab to where the people are. We're very strong [in software] and mobile telephony in the UK."

"Computer research is a very international business. The labs compete on a friendly basis and our research overlaps. We make sure we're not doing the same projects. We look for ways those groups can work together."

Herbert added that the organisation aims firstly, "to advance the state of the art in computer science and transfer technology to Microsoft businesses". The Cambridge lab employs 110 researchers and files 65 patents a year.

Microsoft Research has 1,000 researchers worldwide and is growing by 80 a year, the size of a decent-sized university's computer research department. "It's always total chaos," says Herbert. "It's best not to manage them. I do the stuff they don't want to do. I make sure there are toilet rolls in the labs, they do all the other stuff."

The organisation has also just opened a lab in Bangalore, to look into the role of technology in emerging markets and has many relationships with universities as well as other bodies such as the IEEE.

We've also had a good nose around Microsoft's labs in Cambridge, so look out for more on Microsoft's Research projects over the coming days on TechRadar.

Article continues below