I am spending much of the week at Microsoft Research’s annual TechFest, which is proving to be an absolutely mind-blowing experience. So much, so cool, so out there….
There’s been some good press about the show already (ComputerWorld, and ITWorld for example), and the official Microsoft TechFest site has a wealth of material. The media were allowed in on the “Public Day” to report on a carefully selected subset of the projects being displayed. But I think the coverage has missed an important difference between this show and something like COMDEX or CeBIT.
I’ve gone to tech trade shows for over two decades, but the tech-expo deal gets to be a little stale, as the stuff on show in the booths is stuff that’s typically on sale, even if just reaching the market, available to the masses – it’s not the neat stuff still being tinkered with in a lab.
I always religiously made the trip to MacWorld in San Francisco for example, and that was better than most, because in the Jobs era especially, Apple likes to spring surprises. I remember one year not long after Steve Jobs returned to Apple as CEO, after his years in the NeXT wilderness, when Steve actually wandered the MacWorld floor after his keynote and I was able to chat with him for a moment; I took the opportunity to ask about something that he wasn’t showing or selling, in fact something that the company’s research arm had shelved — their pathbreaking semantic-search efforts, which had been tied to some of their cutting-edge speech-recognition R&D efforts. I’d read the white papers, and asked if he might perhaps revive that research effort, which had been started under him but shelved under one of the interregnum interlopers? “No, not gonna happen. Search is cheap.”
Thus spoke Steve Jobs. (I was thinking, what happened to “Think Different?”) The world has surely turned since then; for Apple, and certainly for Microsoft. TechFest is mind-blowing in part because of the incredible array of search-related and semantic technologies being explored, and the software and online services being created alongside.
But back to why TechFest is “different.” Over the years I’ve visited a lot of R&D labs, at HP, IBM (Almaden, Watson, Silicon Valley), Apple, and other commercial companies, as well as prominent national labs like Sandia, Livermore, Los Alamos… but TechFest is I believe unique in the scale and variety of research efforts brought together in one place not because they’re on the market, or even on the cusp – but because they’re really, really interesting. It’s more like a DARPA showcase, but bigger.
In fact, one of the visitors brought by my group was the ever affable Paul Kozemchak of DARPA, who claims he is a reader of this blog (hi Paul!). He and the others we brought from several international government agencies were only allowed in on the day-one “TechFest Public Day,” and sadly were only allowed to see about a quarter of the exhibits.
The coolness of my job is that my group can quietly marry the company’s innovative research projects with government early-adopters, long before a Microsoft “product” or service would be available in the open market. Microsoft spends well over $7 billion a year in research and development, and my purpose is to see that those efforts benefit public-sector purposes.
In the meantime, I’ll be writing more about some of the more public projects I saw at TechFest once I’ve had a chance to digest the material and notes I made. Great stuff, and my hat’s off to the brilliant researchers!
Filed under: Government, innovation, Microsoft, R&D, Society, Technology Tagged: | Apple, cebit, comdex, DARPA, Government, HP, IBM, innovation, Livermore, Los Alamos, Microsoft, Microsoft Research, national labs, Paul Kozemchak, R&D, research, Sandia, search, semantic, semantic web, Silicon Valley, speech recognition, Steve Jobs, tech, TechFest, Technology