Google X made headlines this week, but Microsoft has been secretly building everything from social networks to projectors that turn a human body into a touch screen in their labs for years. Many people think of Microsoft as that old floppy disk company that broke Windows, but the company has been funding a number of futuristic research and development labs around the world since 1991. The products they're coming up lately with wouldn't be out of place in a Philip K. Dick novel — too bad, you'll probably never be able to use most of them.
After accidentally publishing a teaser page for a social sharing product called Tulalip (horrible name), Microsoft offered the burgeoning new tech blog The Verge an exclusive tour of a similar-looking product in development at the FUSE Labs called Socl (also a horrible name). While the blue color scheme and general layout are terribly Facebook-y, the internal site's "Start a Party" feature and tagged interests are straight out of the Google+ playbook. Inevitably, though, it seems like building a better social search is the project's ultimate goal. Which is obviously also a swipe at Google, as well.
Microsoft has been experimenting with the unrealized possibilities of images for the past several years. As early as 2007, Microsoft Live Labs had devised ways that the capabilities offered by infinite resolution could support multi-dimensional images and how the glut of new images online could be stiched together to create a photographic map of the entire world. Blaise Aguera y Arcas, who would later be the architect of Bing Maps and Bing Mobile, explained the concept in a stunning TED talk (seriously, watch all nine minutes of it) and a year later, Microsoft released a working version of the Photosynth image-stitching software for Windows. Still no word on the infinite resolution images.
This one is borderline creepy, but its uses extend way beyond what the name would suggest. Skinput is essentially a projector equipped with a number of sensors that can pick up mechanical vibrations that essentially turn the human body into one big three-dimensional touchscreen. Developed by the veteran Microsoft Research team in Redmond, Skinput doesn't yet have any real world uses, though the geeks over at Wired hyptothesize that this kind of technology could produce an interactive interface that would use body movements to control devices, kind of like Tom Cruise's computer dance in Minority Report. See also: Microsoft Kinect.
The wildly expensive, interactive computer tables that Microsoft is now trying to sell to hotels and fancy offices is a Microsoft Research project that actually made it to market. You might've heard some buzz around Surface when the first model launched and was used in the presidential debates in 2008, but Microsoft released a second version this year with new technology also developed in the Microsoft labs called PixelSense. Built into the display itself, these infared sensors can detect movement and effectively "see" what's happening in front of the screen. The Samsung-built device will set you back about $12,500 and is available only for commercial customers.
Microsoft has been working with a number of companies to figure out more uses for the surface, including the New York Times-designed breakfast table of the future. No spilling allowed!
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.