Microsoft experiments with virtual receptionists and robots

25 Feb 2009

Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie has said his favourite R&D project underway at the software giant is a 3D virtual receptionist that makes travel arrangements.

Last month, Microsoft said it had reached its 10,000th patent, and across the Microsoft Research organisation more than 800 researchers explore 55 areas of research every day at six labs spread across the globe.

Speaking during the annual TechFest demonstration of Microsoft’s advanced research work, Mundie said: “My current favorite is the virtual receptionist. We’ve got a 3D model of a receptionist that we’re going to be testing in Microsoft reception lobbies. The receptionist knows how to interact with you to arrange the campus shuttle service, along with some other tasks.

“You talk to the model as if it were a person. It interacts with you, maintains eye gaze and can deal with multiple people. It’s built using our Microsoft Robotics Studio technology as a new programming platform. It brings together machine learning, speech recognition, vision – in fact, a wide range of the technologies we’ve been working on in recent years. For the first time, you can see a future where our ability to interact with machines is becoming much more like our ability to interact with other people.”

According to Mundie, sustaining long-term investments in research, alongside investments in day-to-day mission-critical activities, is vital to Microsoft’s ability to weather the current economic storm.

“First, we want to keep making improvements to all of our existing products. Clearly, we need to do that because competition continues to get stronger, even in these difficult times.

“Second, we can’t anticipate everything that people do. Research supplies us with a shock-absorbing capability to react to the unexpected. And sometimes economic downturns are a good time for us to disrupt the market ourselves. For example, we’re building a whole new business in healthcare, which has drawn a great deal from our research groups.

“If you look back, the companies that excelled during previous economic downturns, including the Great Depression, were those that quickly made adjustments to their cost base, found ways to continue investing in the future and invented new products while they were actually in the downturn. Companies such as the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), went into the Depression when radio was the predominant mass media.

“During that period of time, RCA was among those companies that pioneered television, which was launched around the end of the Depression. Companies like RCA and CBS became household names. They were riding the new invention in the upswing after the end of the economic malaise. So, if we want to excel, rather than just survive, we need to keep developing advanced new products, and bring them to market as we exit the economic downturn,” Mundie explained.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Microsoft’s project which displays a conversational agent that can act as a receptionist