A world of NUI: Steve Hodges

I was going to start by saying that Steve comes from an unusual background as a Microsoft researcher but as I travel around the company, and around Microsoft Research (MSR), it’s clear that there is no such thing as an unusual background.

Steve’s first degree was gained in Computer Science with Electronic Engineering, from University College London, and his Ph.D. is from Cambridge University’s Engineering Department in the area of Robotics and Computer Vision. With that hardware oriented background, Steve brings the perfect mix of skills and experience to his role in managing the Sensors and Devices group at MSR Cambridge in the UK.

He’s worked for Microsoft for about 8 years and before arriving was Technical Director of the Cambridge Auto-ID Lab where he worked on developing an RFID-based successor to the barcode for tracking goods through supply chains. MSR isn’t his first stint at a research lab, having also worked as a Research Engineer at the Olivetti and Oracle Research Lab (which later became AT&T Laboratories Cambridge) where he helped to create the Active Bat ultrasonic indoor location system. He also worked at Xerox Research Centre Europe at Cambridge (formerly known as EuroPARC).

I caught up with Steve on the final morning of CES recently when his voice was hoarse after excitedly showing and talking about KinectFusion for three days straight as well as participating in a panel on Evolving User Interfaces. This wasn’t my first encounter with Steve. Several years ago during my time with Microsoft’s UK partner team, I visited MSR in Cambridge to film Steve, his team and some of the projects they were working on. The projects included a “Harry Potter clock” and a fascinating one called SenseCam which started as a wearable camera project and turned in to a commercial product known as the ViconRevue that has helped many patients with debilitating memory disorders.

Given his history with research labs it seemed logical then to start by asking Steve why come to Microsoft and what was different about MSR to other labs.

His answer didn’t differ much from any other researcher I have asked this question of. Steve explained that at MSR, your ability is limited by your own potential, creativity and enthusiasm. He revels in the fact that you don’t need to have someone give you permission to explore an area you may be interested in researching. Sure, if it’s not the right thing you’ll get the appropriate feedback, but if it’s interesting you get a ton of encouragement to explore. That’s the beauty of basic research and Steve commented that the remit of MSR is to hire smart people and push forward the state of the art. It makes for a compelling place to work.

Cambridge itself isn’t a bad venue either and it’s no accident that the UK outpost of Microsoft Research is based here. The collegial nature of MSR blends well with the world famous university that dominates the city. The area has become known as Silicon Fen as it’s home to companies such as Cambridge Silicon Radio and ARM. The MSR lab in Cambridge is home to over 130 research staff and Steve’s group has around ten members – it fluctuates based on interns and postdocs – with skillsets spanning electronics, optics and mechanics. They all have a common passion for combining software with hardware and it’s a good time to be at Microsoft with this combination as we seek to build seamless experiences that span hardware and software.

Despite the blue sky, basic nature of MSR, I’m always interested in the transfer of technology into products and it’s something Steve is passionate about too – he encourages his team to think about the impact their work can have beyond the research. His group has a long history of “tech transfer,” the phrase used in MSR to describe the journey from lab to product. One example Steve calls upon is the work his team did several years ago that was coined “Mouse 2.0”. It looked at novel input devices that combine the standard capabilities of a computer mouse with multi-touch sensing and ultimately resulted in the Microsoft Touch Mouse.

Another project was ThinSight, a forerunner in some ways to Surface 2.0 which was also on display in our CES booth this month. A glance at Steve’s personal page on the MSR website shows he’s involved in some of the most cutting edge hardware and software research.

KinectFusion is a fine example of that – the work is led by Shahram Izadi in Steve’s group and it’s testament to the Kinect Effect taking hold inside of Microsoft as well as outside. Steve is noticeably excited about KinectFusion and enthusiastically demonstrated it to anybody that came by our What’s Next booth at CES. I got the treatment as did the BBC and many others. Smile

It’s clear to me that what most excited Steve and his team is the power of the $150 Kinect sensor that is now in the hands of millions around the world and we’re only just beginning to realize is potential.

One other project that Steve is excited about and showed to a handful of CES attendees is .NET Gadgeteer – a rapid prototyping platform for small electronic gadgets and embedded hardware devices. When Dean Kamen came by for a demo of KinectFusion, Steve whipped out a .NET Gadgeteer kitbag and the two were then carried away by their joint passion to get kids involved in science and technology by engaging them in “building stuff”. When you see a few hundred dollars’ worth of modules laid out and see how quickly they can be combined to make a touch screen camera, it’s almost impossible not to start building. For Dean and his work with FIRST, it holds real potential.


Our time was running out so I asked Steve about the CES panel and we talked about our common passion or Natural User Interfaces (NUI). As you may expect at CES, there was a view that NUI will sound the death knell for mice and keyboards and given Steve’s background, he’s well placed to offer an educated view on this. He disagreed with that notion, arguing as Bill Buxton does that some interfaces are perfect for one thing and awful for another – it’s all about using the right tools for the job.

As I switched off my recorder, and we got ready for the last few hours of demos in the booth, Steve finished with perhaps my favorite quote on NUI so far:


The keyboard and mouse are going to become obsolete just like the pencil did.


This profile was written using a keyboard and a Microsoft Touch Mouse Smile