29 April 2014

Microsoft secret special Project self driving car

Microsoft's self-driving car
Microsoft, clearly a bit jealous of the gratuitous geeky kudos being garnered by Google X, has set up its own secretive Special Projects group. The group is being headed up by Norman Whitaker, previously a deputy director at DARPA. Not much is known about the Special Projects group, but a job listing says it will be tasked with “working on disruptive technologies that could benefit the company and society.” So far, Microsoft has declined to officially comment on this new group presumably it’s waiting for a big New York Times expose, just like Google X.

This whole endeavor reeks of public relations. Microsoft Research, founded way back in 1991 and headed up by computer science luminary Peter Lee, is one of the most prolific and best-funded R&D groups in the world. You could easily argue that Microsoft Research has already been working on disruptive technologies for more than two decades. Some of the coolest innovations that we’ve covered on ExtremeTech have come from Microsoft Research, including IllumiRoom, PhotoSynth, see-through 3D displays.

IllumiRoom demo: Xbox + Kinect + augmented projection
Personally, I thought Microsoft Research’s IllumiRoom technology was pretty darn disruptive.

Presumably, at least as far as the PR department was concerned, those technologies just weren’t disruptive enough or rather, the company wasn’t doing a good job of communicating why those technologies were disruptive.

It isn’t unusual for a big, old company like Microsoft to have these kinds of PR issues. IBM and Samsung, two of the largest and most innovative companies in the world, are so large and labyrinthine that they really struggle to communicate directly with consumers. Microsoft, Samsung, and IBM are quite literally churning out thousands more patents and new technologies per year than Google or Apple but without the requisite PR, marketing, and fanboyism to back them up, very few of these innovations will ever appear in the New York Times or on your favorite tech blog.

Microsoft Research see-through 3D display
Likewise, Microsoft’s see-through 3D display was pretty neat.

With the Special Projects group, Microsoft is probably trying to underscore the fact that it too is working on crazy moonshots like self-driving cars, space elevators, and teleportation. A source tells ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley says that the “similarity [to Google X] is intentional.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Special Projects group actually takes some existing Microsoft Research projects and subsumes them, so that Microsoft PR can give them a sexier, more secretive spin. I can just see it now:

Fade in on a glassy, white-walled room with ceilings and some walls covered in weird, organic-looking spikes

Microsoft PR person #1: What if we take your next-gen Kinect... and strap it to some kind of smart car, or head-mounted display?

Microsoft PR person #2: And then we can use our universal translation technology and Cortana to make the car understand you, like in Knight Rider. And our head-mounted Microsoft Monocle could be controlled with myoelectric muscle gestures, rather than reaching up and swiping the side of the device.

Peter Lee: Genius! Those Google X suckers won't know what hit them!

The camera zooms in on Peter's crazy grin. Fade out.

Courtesy Extremetech


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