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Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer does a little tea leaf reading on future cool gadgets.
Want a computer that knows the exact information you need? Want a virtual meeting space that controls an avatar using your actual facial expressions, voice, and body movements?
That future is nearer than we think, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who recently addressed a luncheon crowd sponsored by the Houston Technology Center. If Ballmer ever quits his day job he should become a motivational speaker – within the crowd of several hundred, one could have heard a pin drop during his talk.
Ballmer is, not surprisingly, bullish on the future of computer technology. It has become, after all, a global need – everyone wants energy, money, and information, he said. “These are the things people are passionate about,” he said.
Unlike the energy industry, companies like Microsoft are in a business where capital costs are lower, and they can go from innovation to broad acceptance quite quickly. This has allowed for the dramatic proliferation of gadgets like tablets, smart phones, and gaming systems no one could have dreamed of 20 years ago. “I relish the opportunity to drive the next wave of change,” he said.
What will comprise that wave? For one thing, the different types of methods that humans use to communicate are beginning to converge – it’s possible to do similar things on an iPhone or tablet that one can do on a PC, for instance.
“Internally they’re the same, but externally they’re different,” Ballmer said.
But they’re still not good enough. Some people, for instance, don’t like to be chained to a keyboard. Television technology is still rather primitive – scrolling down a choice of channels by remote control, for example – even though many people spend much of their time in front of a TV.
To this end, Microsoft has introduced the Xbox Kinect, in which users can talk to and wave at the console rather than using a game controller. The concept has been so popular that already the company has sold more than US $10 million in 2.5 months. Soon it will introduce Avatar Kinect, which allows users to create realistic avatars, not the two-dimensional avatars common on the web today, and put them in a virtual room. It’s kind of like a chat room with the avatars interacting as real people – the avatars talk using the real humans’ voices, and the system picks up their physical movements and recreates them in real time.
Ballmer showed a video with teens discussing the performance of what appeared to be a contestant on “American Idol,” but the technology can potentially be used by older people as well – a mom stuck at home with an infant who wants to connect with her friends, for instance, or a homebound elderly person who wants to talk to his or her grandchildren. Eventually, of course, it could also move into the workplace as a way to everyone to participate in an important meeting regardless of their location.
Another area of innovation revolves around search engines. While these have improved drastically since their introduction, they can still be cumbersome to use.
“When you use a search engine, you don’t really want to search – you want to do something,” Ballmer said. “You want to know something.”
He gave an example of a recent search he conducted to see if there was a relationship between gross domestic product and distance from the equator. “I spent a lot of time on a search engine,” he said. “The computer knows everything that’s there. It should be able to give me an answer.”
He proposes a new application that would incorporate a kind of artificial intelligence that knows what the user means when a search clue is entered.
Finally, he sees a huge revolution in storage. “Those data centers will be revolutionized,” he said. For instance, some companies are proposing building data centers in Siberia that will have sophisticated enough systems that they can be unmanned. If a server goes down, it’s simply taken offline. No emergency repairs would be needed.
“There will be a new model of how to work,” he said. “We’ll see security, privacy, and availability in the Cloud,” he said. Of course, businesses will be leery of moving their highly proprietary data offsite. But Ballmer is convinced that that time will come.
“We need to prove to you that this stuff works,” he said.
Contact the author, Rhonda Duey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.