The living rooms and classrooms of the future will be an active, entertaining, and engaging place, if Microsoft has anything to say about it – and on Tuesday evening, the huge multinational showed off its up-and-coming technology tricks to President Shimon Peres. On a visit to Microsoft’s Ra’anana research and development lab, Peres got a taste of tomorrow as MS staff showed off new products that Microsoft is currently selling – as well as a project that the company believes will change the way people think about watching TV.
Among the devices Peres got a first-hand look at was Microsoft’s new Xbox One, MS’s new interactive product, used by most buyers as a gaming device, with interactive motion and first-person games and activities. The Xbox One was first introduced in the U.S. and other markets several months ago (it’s due to hit Israel in mid-2014), and is the heir of the Xbox 360, also popular with gamers.
Key to the functionality of the Xbox One is Kinect, the 3D-sensitive scanner that sees not only images, but can figure out depth and space – allowing users to play games on the screen using avatars (digital renditions of players) that mimic real 3D action. Kinect was developed in Israel by PrimeSense, and acquired by MS, where it was further advanced with software. PrimeSense itself was bought by Apple just last month for $350 million.
At 90, though, Peres wasn’t likely to be interested in game-playing, so the MS staff showed the president some other things he could do with his Kinect-generated avatar, like scanning for emotions, reading his heartbeat and other key health measurements, and directing his movements in an exercise video. In a near faux-pas, the device’s emotion scanner software decided that Peres was only “somewhat interested” in the proceedings – but ever the consummate diplomat, the President quickly upped his game, and immediately was re-listed as “interested” in the Xbox One presentation.
Whatever his opinion of the Xbox device, Peres did not have to feign interest in another MS development meant for use in an educational or other public setting. PixelSense is a display (usually laid down as a table) that lets users – all at the same time – using a touch surface to interact with content, and with each other. In the demonstration Peres saw, the President was shown a program that lets users travel the solar system allowing one to see space from the perspective of different planets. Touch a planet and it gets highlighted, and the rest of the solar system – the other planets, asteroids, and star views – realign themselves to show how space would look from that planet.
The system has a million and one uses in and out of the classroom – among the applications available are interactive programs that trace Columbus’ voyage to the new world, a program that brings up interactive displays of sites on a map, and a program that lets kids test and design objects using the principles of physics. Peres, of course, is very interested in educational issues; earlier in the day, he spoke at an Education Ministry conference on technology in education. “You started your day discussing technology in the classroom, and you are ending it by seeing a practical demonstration of how Microsoft is helping to advance this,” the CEO of Microsoft Israel, Mr. Danny Yamin, told Peres.
But perhaps the most unique product MS showed Peres – brought to Israel specifically for demonstration to the President, and shown for the first time in Israel – was the still-in-development IllumiRoom, designed to let TV “grow” out of the box, and encompass the entire room. Using a Kinect camera and a projector, the IllumiRoom lets users experience games and interactive videos on a much bigger surface than even a large screen TV. The Kinect 3D scanner captures the layout of the room, including where the furniture is, pictures on the wall, colors, lighting, etc., and adapts the games and videos being used by a gaming system (like the Xbox One) to the contours of the room.
Thus, said Dr. Eyal Ofek, a senior researcher at MS Israel working on the IllumiRoom, you could have users play a game that uses an entire wall as the screen, with continuity between the TV or monitor and the rest of the wall. “For example, you could have an avatar throw a hand grenade on the screen, and it will explode on the wall,” Ofek said. “In a car racing game, you could have a car crash off the screen, and the furniture will, using video flashing technology, appear to be ‘shocked’ and move out of place because of the impact of the crash.
“You could have an avatar ski down a slope that extends outside the TV screen, and for atmosphere, you could have virtual snow falling from the top of the room down to the floor, with the snow ‘sticking’ to the floor and piling up there as it falls,” said Ofek. “IllumiRoom is about taking a TV display and turning it into an immersive experience.”
Peres, who has been to many high-tech companies and seen a lot of new technology, was clearly impressed by what he saw at MS Israel. “I am extremely proud of you and the work that you do. Greatness is to contribute to society and think in terms of generosity. I see you not only as an advanced technological company but a community organization based on technology,” said Israel’s President.
“Israel’s technological potential is vast. Within Israel we have talented people and we must find the ways to continue developments here.”