From GUI to natural user interface

Hardware at Microsoft has a 30-year history, with the company working with a manufacturing supply chain to deliver in high volumes the products Microsoft designs. And you can apply to your own projects some of the lessons Microsoft hardware engineers have learned. That's according to Dr. Elan Spillinger, vice president for hardware and technology at the Microsoft Interactive Business Entertainment Unit, who delivered in a keynote address titled  “Designing for the Future” January 31 at DesignCon.

Spillinger's unit employs 400 engineers, he said. Products have ranged from an optical mouse and ergonomic keyboard to Xbox and Kinect. The Kinect line has sold more than 18 million sensors, more than 66 million Xbox game consoles have sold, and there are nearly 40 million Xbox live subscribers, he said.

Opportunities for innovation lie in transformational trends, he said, identifying such transformations as the move in the computing ecosystem from thinking about a PC on every desk to today's environment where there is now computing in every single device—computing becomes invisible as we integrate many more sensors. Designs themselves are changing, he said—they used to incorporate a CPU, GPU, Northbridge, and Southbridge, but now that can all be incorporated in a single SoC. He pointed to pride to a headline from ars technica: “Microsoft beats Intel, AMD to market with CPU/GPU combo chip.”

Cloud computing is also changing designs, Spillinger said—we as consumers are less likely to carry data with us, and while the cloud is now mostly focused on storage, he said he expects compute resources to take to the cloud as well.

Spillinger addressed major changes in user interface over the last 30 years—from mouse and keyboard through WYSIWYG and GUIs and on to what he calls the “natural user interface”—with pervasive touch, voice, and vision sensors, and with, perhaps, smell and taste sensors on the horizon. “All these sensors make devices more and more intelligent and will impact the way we interact with devices and each other,” he said.

Current efforts in his division at Microsoft include expanding Kinect beyond gaming. That effort—called Kinect Effect—began in 2008 and adapts Kinect technology for business and other applications, including healthcare and the military.

Spillinger advised the audience on how to deliver innovation, recommending three guidelines: flexibility, discipline, and focus. Flexibility, he said, allows engineers to be creative and follow transformational trends. Discipline will enable companies to bring products to market in high volumes. In addition, he said that focus will help meet specific goals such as time-to-market or low cost. “Don’t try to change everything at the same time and hope and pray you'll be on time to market,” he said. “If you don't achieve all your goals with version 1, there will be a version 2 and version 3.”

He elaborated on discipline, citing a variety of DfX (design for excellence) acronyms: DfA (design for assembly), DfC (design for compliance), DfG (design for green), DfM (design for manufacturability), DfSo (design for sourcing), DfSa (design for safety), DfR (design for reliability), DfSe (design for serviceability), and DfT (design for testability).

Your product will have to go to an assembly house, Spillinger said, so make it simple for the workers there. Minimize the number of parts, leave enough space between components to facilitate pick-and-place, make sure all screws use same screwdriver, and build bottom-up ( don't make workers flip a circuit board back and forth).

Finally, Spillinger concluded, “When you start a project, believe in what you are going to do.”

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