While the rest of Microsoft Research is focused on advancing "the state of the art in computing through a combination of basic and applied research" (according to the Microsoft Careers job site), the MSR Special Projects Group is more of a startup wthat is focused specifically on "disruptive next-generation technologies."
The general areas that the new Special Projects team will address include "hard and interesting problems" in the areas of systems, networking, distributed computing, UX design, devices, cloud, mobility, machine learning/artifical intelligence, big data and datacenter technologies, according to a recent job posting. In short -- the same focus areas of Microsoft as a whole and Microsoft Research, in particular.
Google X is Google's not-so-secret lab that is working on "moonshot" projects in the areas of Internet of Things -- like self-driving cars -- machine-learning and other leading-edge areas. Google Glass, Project Loon (Internet service via hot-air balloons) are/were also GoogleX projects.
I've asked Microsoft officials when the new Special Projects team was formed and who is heading it up. Microsoft officials declined to comment.
Norman A. Whitaker is a Microsoft distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research Special Projects. As head of that group, he provides a structure for projects with focused objectives aimed at altering and expanding what people imagine is possible with technology.
Previously, Whitaker served as deputy director of the Information Innovation Office at DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.