Where do you want to work tomorrow?

commentary Microsoft's experimental office of the future is full of gee-whiz work tech. But would any of it really be an improvement over the tech you use today?
Written by Rafe Needleman, Contributor
Where do you want to work tomorrow?
commentary Microsoft's experimental office of the future is full of gee-whiz work tech. But would any of it really be an improvement over the tech you use today?

Recently, I paid a visit to Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus. Between meetings about Lonestar (the next version of Windows for tablet PCs), the company's small-business strategy, and other topics, I wedged in a tour of the company's office of the future, called the Center for Information Work (CIW).

My tour guide, Tom Gruver, ushered me into a large oval room that reminded me of an exhibit at Epcot. Workstations were arrayed around the room classroom-style, facing a main station where Tom held court. Each desk had multiple flat-screen monitors, and some had multiple computers, tablets, or PDAs. All the screens in the room, including the displays projected on the walls, ran red-orange backgrounds, as if to reinforce the idea that what we weren't looking at the blue-schemed Windows of today.

Tom took pains to explain to me that what I was going to see was akin to a concept car at a Detroit auto show. The company was exploring new ideas and customer reactions to them, and the items before me were by no means ready for production and might never be.

That was a real bummer; I could really use many of the things Tom showed right now. But others made for great demos that left me wondering what magic would have to be invented before they were ready for the real world.

Among my favorite ideas from the CIW:

Multimonitor improvements
I'm a big proponent of multiple monitors in the workplace. The current versions of both Windows and Mac operating systems make setting up and using multiple monitors easy, but Microsoft is continuing to tweak the concept.

One demo at the CIW had a three-screen display, in which windows shrank in proportion to their distance from the center of the middle monitor. This made your Windows desktop like your real desktop, where items at the periphery of your vision are generally less important in terms of needing your attention. I found the concept interesting but a little annoying since you couldn't easily read text in windows at the far edges of your workspace.

Some CIW workstations were equipped with a secondary tablet system and showcased a very cool feature: The mouse tracked from your main displays directly to the tablet, thus making the tablet seem like just another monitor, though it's a fully independent computer. The idea is that, when your tablet is on your desk, you should be able to simply drag windows or files to it with your primary system's mouse -- pretty slick. The last time I saw network-based interface sharing like this, it was years ago, and I was looking at a QNX-based system.

Delayed filtering
A key technology in the CIW, delayed filtering  is essentially a timeline-based in-box for all your messages. In the demo, e-mail and instant messages continuously arrived on the desktop, just as they do now. But the filtering rules didn't take effect immediately, as they usually do; instead, the messages first moved along a two-minute pipeline on a peripheral monitor. The rules didn't kick in until the messages reached the end of the line; only then did they get automatically filed, deleted, or whatever else you've told your e-mail client to do with them.

This represents an interesting way to keep the activity in your in-box visible, while still allowing the system to filter messages you don't want to deal with right away. I wish I could use this one right now. There is a handy plug-in for Outlook that does this: Auto-Mate from Pergenex Software. However, it crashed when I tried running it on my machine.

Best Comm
I found it curious that there wasn't a single mobile phone or SPOT watch in the CIW. There was a reason for that: Microsoft was showcasing a feature called Best Comm, short for best communication. Using data from your Outlook calendar, your presence on Windows, and the location where you last made or received a call, Best Comm routes incoming voice and text messages to the device of yours that you're most likely to be near.

For this concept to really work, we'd need to tightly integrate our computing infrastructure with existing phone and cellular networks and with Internet telephony (VoIP). The big voice carriers might be loath to do that, but if more people move to VoIP, the service providers might be convinced. It'd save us the hassle of checking multiple voicemail boxes all the time.

Ring Cam
In a conference room next door to the CIW main room, Tom showed off the Ring Cam, a Web camera designed for conference rooms. It's made up of five or six inexpensive cameras perched on a stick in the middle of a conference table and arranged so that they cover a full 360 degrees. Microphones and video processing enable the system to automatically switch to the camera that shows who's speaking. It could make phone conferences much more personal.

Underneath all the fancy hardware and user-interface improvements that Tom presented to me, I detected a consistent theme: In the future, Microsoft wants its technology to act more intelligently on our behalf.

For example, in one of the demos, we were in a meeting and decided to take on a project that required our CEO to approve a purchase. The system automatically kicked off that request to the CEO, finding him on an airplane and sending a message to his seat-back screen. Once the purchase was approved, the system sent the correct data to the factory or even to the trucker carrying the goods we needed.

This example really strained credulity. The hardware and interface demos I saw all represented incremental changes to existing technology. But the complex, almost magical rules-based communications system this demo required seemed years away from reality.

In the meantime, I'd be happy with Outlook filters that work better and a cool multicomputer interface that made file transfers easier.

I'll be visiting more labs and demo setups like this one in coming months and will report on what other work tech the big hardware, software, and networking vendors see in our futures.

What do you think? What kinds of technology would you like to see in your office that you can't get today? TalkBack to me below!

Editorial standards