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Microsoft Shows Off The Office Of The Future

Software company opens Center For Information Work to demonstrate technologies it's researching and others that are still in the imagination stage.

Microsoft says it's seen the future of office work, and it wants its customers to do the same. The software company on Thursday opened its Center for Information Work, an office-of-the-future mock-up located on its Redmond, Wash., campus that's designed to show off technologies it's researching--and others it imagines--to about 1,000 customers each month.

The center recreates a day in the life of an office worker who must solve a manufacturing problem by working with video-embedded E-mail, data-analysis tools, instant messages, mobile computers, and a futuristic conference room that patches in virtual meeting participants. It includes prototype hardware and software from Microsoft and its partners in the venture--Acer, Intel, and Sony Electronics--plus a healthy dose of canned demonstrations that aren't working systems.

Three systems that do exist in Microsoft Research and development teams are the Tablet PC, set to launch Nov. 7, and a pair of research-lab projects called BroadBench and RingCam. BroadBench, a project by researcher Gary Starkweather, an optics expert who used to work at Xerox PARC, is a foot-high, four-foot-wide, wraparound display that presents documents, messages, charts, graphs, and other information in a way that can increase users' efficiency by cutting down on time spent switching between apps, Microsoft says. It's also particularly compelling for graphics tools such as PhotoShop, and Flight Simulator, Starkweather says. "I want it like the IMAX experience, where at the beginning of the movie, it says, 'Should you feel queasy, close your eyes'," he says.

The prototype BroadBench in the Center for Information Work was built by Synergy Systems, a prototype hardware manufacturer in Redmond that also contracts with AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, and Cray. The display is powered by Digital Light Processing technology from Texas Instruments, which delivers ultra-bright images by manipulating thousands of microscopic mirrors which correspond to each pixel.

RingCam, a system built with inexpensive microphones and digital cameras, uses research-lab software that identifies speakers in a meeting so virtual participants can later search for comments made by a certain participants. Microsoft also thinks its Tablet PC software, which lets users annotate Office documents, write E-mail messages, and create searchable notes with a digital pen on special notebook computers, will yield new benefits to office workers in meetings.

Microsoft also is trying to expand the reach of its slow-growing Office franchise to workers outside traditional office settings. Microsoft group VP Jeff Raikes says he hopes Office and related products will contribute $8 billion to $10 billion in additional annual revenue within 10 years, on top of annual sales of about $10 billion today. The company plans to deliver easy-to-use data-analysis tools, hosted E-mail for small and midsize businesses, and new connectivity between Office apps and server software.

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