Tools of the trade: Scott Saponas, Microsoft Research

I’m writing this on a flight back from San Francisco where we held a gathering to chat about NUI. A perfect time to interrogate Scott Saponas about his tools of the trade – I managed to glean the info from him during a cab ride to the airport.

Before we delve in to the details, who is Scott?

I first heard of him when he was honored as one of Technology Review’s 2010 Young Innovators Under 35. I headed to Building 99 to track him down and found a young kid hanging out in his office…turns out it was Scott. He’s a Researcher in the Computational User Experiences (CUE) group within the VIBE area at Microsoft Research. What does all of that mean? He does research in to Human-Computer Interaction exploring what he calls “off-desktop interfaces” – stuff like using your body as an interface mechanism. Scott has developed software that can process the signals that arise when, for example, you pinch your index finger with your thumb. This research could enable you to remotely control a media player whilst jogging simply by moving your fingers. Alternatively, in clean room type environments, devices could be controller without having to physically touch the device in question. This is all better explained by his “air guitar video”.

So…what are Scott’s Tools of the Trade?

  • Scott lugs his gear around in a North Face backpack – he also had a trolley bag on this occasion having joined us direct from Hawaii
  • Dell Latitude E6410 – packing more power than mine as he does dev work!
  • Samsung Focus Windows Phone 7 – the device of choice for many Softies
  • Sony Noise cancelling headphones – essential for a man who speaks at many conferences and spends time flying
  • At least two other set of headphones – one with a mic for his phone, another with wraparound loops for sports
  • A PCB prototype of his latest project – essential for any real geek cred
  • A 3D printed object – unidentified at this stage
  • Moleskine notebook and pen – never ceases to surprise me how many people still rely on the trusty Moleskine
  • HDMI cables for ad hoc demos and hotel room streaming of Netflix – why didn’t I think of that?
  • Academic papers – always reading what others are thinking in related fields of research
  • Trailmix – energy input during back to back meetings or late nights in the lab
  • A selection of magazines – The Economist, Rolling Stone, Scientific American & ESPN

Our cab ride was long enough that I also got the details on what Scott has inside (and just outside) of his office

  • Desktop PC + 2 x 24” Dell monitors, 1 x 30” monitor
  • Xbox – for gameplay and prototyping
  • Kinect – as above
  • Hardware prototypes, PCB’s and plastic models
  • A private stash of acrylic for laser cutting – evidently acrylic is quite a tradable commodity in MSR Smile
  • No fluorescent light source – Scott ripped his roof light out and replaced with LED
  • Variable power supply
  • 2 additional PC’s for prototyping
  • Soldering iron
  • Vice clips for holding gear
  • Toolbox – full of regular tools but also a random assortment of specialized Torx screwdrivers


So there you have it, everything a budding Microsoft Researcher needs. Quite an exhaustive list…but all necessary when you’re building the future Winking smile

Check out the video below of Scott on air guitar using one of his own creations to show how muscles can be used as input mechanisms. You can also follow Scott on Twitter.