Microsoft Garage expands to include exploration, creation of cross-platform consumer apps

Xuedong Huang, Microsoft Garage apps,
Xuedong Huang, distinguished engineer at Microsoft, helped develop a voice-recognition app for Android smartwatches. (Photo credit: Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures)

Xuedong Huang is wearing a smartwatch. It’s a Google smartwatch, and he wants to ask it a question: What’s the weather in San Francisco?

“OK, Google,” he says to the watch, following the protocol needed to get the watch’s microphone turned on before making a query, which he subsequently does. Then Huang tries another approach, one that’s faster, using Torque, an app he helped create. He gives his wrist with the watch a slight twist, and asks the question to Bing. This time, there is no “OK, Google” needed; the twist turns the microphone on, and the Bing answer arrives quickly: “90 degrees.”

Unusual weather for the Bay Area. And an unusual effort for a Microsoft distinguished engineer to be spending time on – isn’t it? No. “We live in a services world now,” says Ronette Lawrence, principal product planner with Microsoft’s Digital Life & Work Development. “Software has evolved from something that needs to be specific by device, to largely Web hosted and cloud supported — and we think the device someone uses shouldn’t matter. We want to bring better experiences to whatever device they choose to use.”

Torque represents a “great collaboration, but it is also a great agility story,” Huang says. It also represents Microsoft’s evolving culture, where experimentation is encouraged, failure is an option, apps are platform-agnostic and getting them to customers quickly for review is key to learning what will work and what won’t. The home base for this effort: The Garage, Microsoft’s haven for über geeks who are constantly thinking and tinkering. The Garage’s mantra is “Doers, not talkers.”

The Garage started out in 2009 in Office Labs with “a simple vision of giving people at Microsoft an opportunity to embrace their inner innovator and explore grassroots projects, mostly as side projects,” says Jeff Ramos, Manager of The Garage.

“Now the idea behind The Garage is to connect our engineers and engineering projects with real customers to evaluate how technologies are being received,” he says. “From a customer’s point of view, it’s a really great way to get first access to emerging technologies. And from Microsoft’s point of view, it’s really a great way to get real feedback from real customers on how people are using things.”

Apps like Mouse Without Borders, BusAlarm and Bing Keyword Distribution Graph flowed from the within the walls of The Garage on the Redmond campus. The Garage grew over the next five years into a global community of more than 10,000 hackers, coders and makers. The Garage evolved to support side projects and small-scale innovation from engineering teams across the company, giving customers early exposure to emerging technologies.

Microsoft Garage apps will be consumer-focused, on both the “play side of life, as well as apps that help people be more productive in their work environments,” Lawrence says.

“There are many apps that are designed to encourage connections between people. Lots of apps will help people share content, or collaborate on work projects, help do things like make it easier to schedule time with people and ways for them to take shortcuts on things that right now take many steps. A lot of the apps are designed to do things faster, more simply,” she says.

Torque, which will be available for Android Wear, was developed in less than three months as a side project by Huang and colleagues, Jiaping Wang, Lingfeng Wu and Wayne Xiong, all of them passionate about the project. Working with Microsoft researchers, they have improved the twist gesture from 70 percent to more than 95 percent using advanced machine learning algorithms. Huang has devoted most of his life’s work to speech and voice recognition, founding Microsoft’s speech recognition research and development efforts in the early 1990s.

If speed is important, so is the opportunity “to test, learn and fail,” says Kristina Behr, Bing Design Research & Planning principal program manager. “As Emma says, ‘Sometimes we want to fail fast – and fail gloriously.’”

Emma is Emma Williams, Bing Design’s general manager, who is working with Behr on mobile consumer apps for the Garage program.

“The entire thrust of our program here is around experimentation and learning,” Williams says.

If an app doesn’t work out, “We want to tell our engineers, ‘That was awesome, you did something really important for us. We learned tremendously from this app experience, and we know what will and what won’t resonate with users from that. Congratulations! Now – move on to the next one and create something else,’” she says. “We don’t want people to feel bad; we want them to celebrate those failures as much as we celebrate the gains.”

Microsoft Garage apps are reviewed first by an internal audience of Microsoft employees, with comments and suggestions back to developers on a daily basis before an app heads to a store. “We’re all consumers as well, and a lot of products that we want to build for our customers we actually want to use,” says Lawrence.

Among the universal apps for Windows and Windows Phone being released on Oct. 22 through Microsoft Garage is Collaborate, a shared digital whiteboard experience, says Alvin Chardon, senior program manager at Microsoft’s Foundry Intern Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Collaborate app, which works on Windows tablets and phones, “creates a frictionless way for you and a couple of colleagues to be able to do a brainstorm,” Chardon says. “Nobody has to photograph the whiteboard or jot down notes in email … It is a digitally authentic experience designed for sharing right from the start.”

MJ Lee, Microsoft Garage apps, Next Lock Screen
“You sign up for the things you have passion for,” says MJ Lee, about working on Microsoft Garage apps. (Photo credit: Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures)

Those who work on Microsoft Garage apps do so because they came up with the ideas or they’re excited about them.

“You sign up for the things you have passion for,” says MJ Lee. “If you don’t have passion for it – don’t work on it.” Lee is a principal group program manager with Digital Life & Work Development, and he is based in Beijing.

Along with several colleagues, in the last few months he has been working on an app called Next Lock Screen that’s specifically for Android phones, and will be available in the Google Play Store Oct. 22. The app was inspired by a study that found, on average, a mobile device is unlocked 120 times a day to do mostly repetitive tasks.

Next Lock Screen lets users see information on their phone screen that might be vital to them at the right time – showing critical information for their next meeting or whether a spouse called – without having to unlock the display, something that is now done repetitively every day by users so they can see such information.

“On Windows Phone, we have Live Tiles, so you don’t have to go into an app to find out those kinds of things,” Lawrence says. “On the Android phone, there’s very little information you can see without opening an app. We really believe the best experience for customers is to not have to open the app every time they want that kind of information.”

Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Microsoft Garage apps
Taking public transit every day from Seattle to Redmond led Andrés Monroy-Hernández of Microsoft Research and his colleagues to create the Journeys & Notes app. (Photo credit: Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures)

Another app to be released soon, Journeys & Notes, is for commuters who take public transit or share rides – and who often spend time staring down at their phones, and not looking at, or dealing with, other people.

Sarah Needham and Andrés Monroy-Hernández from Microsoft Research are frequent bus commuters  from Seattle to Redmond. Along with former MSR intern Justin Cranshaw, the three of them thought it would be useful for people who want to share transit woes, stories and tips to have a way to connect (without using real names). So, they developed the app, which will be released first for Android, then for iOS and Windows Phone devices. The app’s algorithm connects people with similar commutes, based on their origin, destination and distance.

“Here in Seattle, people complain about public transit on Reddit or on Facebook, but there’s no place for commuters to come together.” Journeys & Notes does that, Monroy-Hernández says.

Stephane Morichere-Matte, Microsoft Garage apps
Stephane Morichere-Matte says “Voice Commander” for Xbox One lets you have “an almost unlimited number of players participating in the game.” (Photo credit: Scott Eklund, Red Box Pictures)

There will also be Microsoft Garage apps and games for Xbox One. “Voice Commander,” which is also available today.

It’s a “top-down space shooter meets tower defense, enhanced by voice,” says Stephane Morichere-Matte, senior program manager at Microsoft’s Foundry Intern Program in Vancouver, Canada. “Voice Commander” uses the power of Kinect and “your voice to build turrets, launch devastating attacks, while still getting to control your spaceship to destroy wave after wave of invaders.”

Not only that, but “Voice Commander” is “an awesome party game, too,” he says, where “having voice enables you to have an almost unlimited number of players participating in the game. You don’t need to have the controller in your hand to be able to participate. You can simply shout voice commands. In terms of controllers, it supports up to eight different players with a controller.”

“We’re super excited about Microsoft Garage apps,” says Chardon. “Being able to get these apps to our customers faster, so we can know if we’re building the right things, if we’re exploring the right concepts – it’s really cool.”

Get a first look at the apps mentioned in this story, and many more, at the Microsoft Garage website.

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff

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