Microsoft’s Cube debuts at Decibel, creating a one-of-a-kind digital dance party

Dancing with the Cube in Microsoft’s Maker Garage. Photo illustration: Scott Eklund.

Dancing with the Cube in Microsoft’s Maker Garage. Photo illustration: Scott Eklund.

Imagine a giant three-dimensional object that creates a virtual space, while at the same time encouraging real-life interaction. Outside, it is 4-feet square. Inside, it is powered by five computers and four Kinects working in concert.

Introducing the Cube: Microsoft’s interactive art installation, unveiled this week at Seattle’s Decibel Festival, a celebration of electronic music, visual art and new media.

Born from a brainstorm of how to create something that would uniquely live at the intersection of technology and design, the Cube and its multiple Kinects invites onlookers to become part of the art.

“The Cube is a canvas for a new kind of creative expression,” explains Michael Megalli, senior director of brand strategy at Microsoft. “It’s an appliance that creates public space.”

At Decibel, the Cube will be a vehicle for a uniquely connected digital dance party, on display tonight through Monday in the Seattle Center between the Trimpin sculpture and Sky Church.

Participants stand in front of the giant structure and the Cube reacts, pulsating to music and tracing the movements of those around it. The Kinects can read up to three people on each side, and you can see others through the Cube, which acts as a portal, virtually connecting people who are separated in physical space.

Inside, the Cube is powered by five computers and four Kinect v2 sensors. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

Inside, the Cube is powered by five computers and four Kinect v2 sensors. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

Rick Barraza, senior technical evangelist at Microsoft, likes to talk about the Cube using terms like “magic” and “alchemy.”

It’s also an example of an evolving culture at Microsoft under Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, where hacking is encouraged and the creative coding community is welcomed into the fold, he says.

“It’s about evolutionary innovation versus revolutionary innovation,” Barraza explains. “We won’t reach that next level until we encourage creativity. The Cube is part of that. We’re saying to agencies, ‘Here is our product. Here is our software stack. It’s open to you to play with.’”

Barraza takes out a sheet of paper and draws three circles, intersecting with each other, and labeled: art/culture, technology and marketing. The Cube inhabits the space somewhere around in the middle, where they overlap.

The Cube started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea that took shape over many months as people from different corners of the company brought their expertise, and passion, to the project.

Michael Megalli, senior director of brand strategy at Microsoft. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

Michael Megalli, senior director of brand strategy at Microsoft. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

The question, says Megalli, was how to use technology to do things people have never seen before.

Initially, they considered using LCD displays, but that proved expensive and too fragile at such a large scale. There were other aesthetic challenges with the displays, such as how to create seamless corners and how to maintain the shape of a perfect square.

The team at Microsoft worked with WorldStage, an event technology company based in New York and Southern California, to design the prototypes and the final Cube with custom-fabricated screens made from projection material and clear acrylic, instead of using LCD displays. The Cube was constructed with seamless corners joined to minimize optical distortion of the images that are projected from the inside.

Marc Goodner, senior program manager for Microsoft’s Visual Studio, attributes the project’s existence to a practice of “iterative prototyping.” Goodner also runs the Maker chapter of The Garage, a place that encourages Microsoft employees from all corners of the company to come tinker. He believes that the Cube embodies this ethos of “doing.”

Another technical challenge was engineering the Kinects residing inside the Cube to talk to each other.

“It’s not easy to integrate multiple Kinects into the one system,” explains Abram Jackson, program manager for Microsoft’s Exchange Server, and a regular at the Maker Garage. “We had to take all four of the Kinects, map out a cohesive view of the room to keep track of where the people are, even if they change to a different sensor, so the images displayed on the Cube still make sense to that person.”

Microsoft looked to the creative development community to help write the code for the Cube’s dance party debut at Decibel, partnering with Stimulant, a Seattle-based digital design firm specializing in interactive installations.

Josh Santangelo, technical director at Stimulant. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

Josh Santangelo, technical director at Stimulant. Photo credit: Scott Eklund.

“The Cube, with the combination of the Kinect technology and software stack, is something that could only be done at Microsoft. And we’re using it to create this cool experience,” says Josh Santangelo, Stimulant’s technical director.

People may think they’ve seen all kinds of digital art, but the Cube will delight even the most jaded festival-goer, Santangelo predicts. “You can gather around it and dance,” he says. “It’s super fun.”

Likewise, Goodner predicts his friends in the developer community will be blown away by the Cube.

“We’ve built a 4-foot cube with a continuous projection surface and four Kinects inside of it,” he says. “Where else are you going to do that?”

The entire structure sits atop a 2-foot tall base. The idea, eventually, is to make an even bigger Cube, or Cubes — perhaps Cubes that even talk to each other.

“It could be a stage for performance, a blackboard for education, a display case for museum artifacts,” explains Megalli. “It could be a communications device to bring people together in unexpected ways.”

“We can’t fathom, yet, what possible things will be built from this,” says Nicole Aguirre, senior brand manager at Microsoft. “We’re starting new conversations for hardware and software, art and technology. We’re enabling creativity and expression. The aim is to position Microsoft as an active collaborator at the forefront of world innovators.”