The Magic Behind the Curtain: Celebrating Microsoft Research’s 20th Anniversary

September 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of Microsoft Research (MSR). To celebrate the occasion, MSR is hosting a day of conversations at many Microsoft research labs around the globe to discuss the key technology trends—like natural user interface, “big data,” and machine learning—that are transforming the way people use computers and what they can do for us.

What better time, then, to pause, reflect on and celebrate the role of MSR at Microsoft, the impact of their work inside and outside the company, and what the future may hold.

Spurred by Bill Gates’ vision that someday computers will see, listen, speak and learn, Bill, Rick Rashid and Nathan Myhrvold created MSR in 1991 with a mission to advance the state of the art in computing through a combination of basic and applied research. That mission hasn’t changed, but the organization has blossomed to 12 facilities around the world (including Redmond, Wash.; Cambridge, U.K.; Beijing; Mountain View, Calif.; Aachen, Germany; Bangalore; Cairo and Cambridge, Mass.), currently supporting more than 850 researchers in over 60 fields of research.

Microsoft Research operates twelve facilities worldwide.
Microsoft Research operates twelve facilities worldwide.

While tens of thousands of software engineers are focused on current product development efforts within Microsoft’s business groups, MSR’s researchers are tasked with looking into the future. The labs are unique among corporate research facilities in that they balance an open academic model with a process for transferring their research results into Microsoft products. This means that, unlike any other technology company today, Microsoft Researchers advance the state of the art in computing through a combination of basic (meant to increase the scientific knowledge base) and applied (meant to solve immediate problems) research that is openly shared with the scientific and academic community.

This approach guides Microsoft’s researchers as they work across continents and disciplines, collaborating within Microsoft and throughout industry and academia to create technologies that can help change business, life and society. Through research, they question the principles of what people want and need from technology, and in doing so, help to shape the future of technology and give Microsoft the agility to respond when the world changes – or to change the world themselves.

Kinect Fusion, a Microsoft Research project, leverages Kinect sensor data to create high quality 3D  models.
Kinect Fusion, a Microsoft Research project, leverages Kinect sensor data to create high quality 3D models.

And they are well-equipped to do so. MSR is home to some of the world’s finest computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists and engineers.

What is their impact, you may ask? The simple answer to that is that MSR has developed technologies for almost every product or service Microsoft releases. If you’ve used speech recognition in Office, searched on Bing, had spam removed from your inbox or played Xbox games with friends across the Internet, then you have benefitted from the work of MSR. As I write this blog post and use Microsoft Office to check grammar and spelling, I’m utilizing inventions from MSR. Much of their work is realized in feature updates “under the hood” that we may not even recognize, but that make it possible for us to do things like see social networking results in Bing or navigate your phone with your voice.

In fact, some of their latest work is very intentionally invisible – the technology inside Kinect that can track your body movement and hear your voice was a result of work inside MSR. I like to call their work “the magic behind the curtain” and I think that accurately depicts the humble way in which they deliver their work, without fanfare or ceremony. All the more reason to celebrate today!

The impact of MSR outside of Microsoft is no less significant, and includes developing technologies that can be used by medical, environmental and scientific organizations to do things like improve Alzheimer’s disease research, search for an HIV vaccine, improve quality control in the food industry, and help prevent deforestation. These examples illustrate MSR’s commitment to improve society in any field that may benefit from a researcher’s work—not just Microsoft’s products. To realize this goal, MSR has established more than 30 joint research institutes to support research projects around the world.

Occasionally, I’m asked about the return on investment (ROI) from Microsoft’s annual $9 billion R&D investment. In a previous post on this blog, I mentioned that MSR is the “R” in research and development, and characterized the balance between R&D as “small r and big D.” By that I mean that the vast majority of that amount funds product development, not Microsoft Research. To me it makes the impact of MSR—within and outside of Microsoft— all the more important, and the ROI unquestionable.

Windows Phone 7, one of the Microsoft products that utilizes technologies from Microsoft Research.
Windows Phone 7, one of the Microsoft products that utilizes technologies from Microsoft Research.

The appetite to invest in basic and applied research and collaborate with academia and industry hasn’t waned in the last 20 years – in fact, it’s only gotten stronger. As technology plays a more crucial role in everyday life, we believe those investments will be pivotal not only to Microsoft’s success, but also in helping to solve some of the toughest challenges mankind faces.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the anniversary will be celebrated by a series of symposium events around the globe, and you can find more coverage of the highlights of those events here. Head there to hear about projects such as KinectFusion from the MSR lab in the U.K., and a project called “Tiger” from MSR Asia that has brought new search indexing capabilities to Bing.

So congratulations to MSR, and here’s to another 20 years of breakthroughs!

Posted by Steve Clayton
Editor, Next at Microsoft Blog