This past week Microsoft published a blog post entitled 17 for ’17: Microsoft researchers on what to expect in 2017 and 2027. I have long stated that Microsoft has the best vision of what our future should look like and it’s also apparent that they have the research to back up their vision of the future. Microsoft has long shot beyond what users wanted or needed. Over time Microsoft has refined this process and delivered software (and now hardware) that is ultimately futuristic.
Since social media trends in 2016 seem to indicate stagnation, I decided it would be worthwhile to look at some of these research predictions for 2017 and 2027 to see where we may ultimately end up heading. The three areas that offer the most potential for end users are enhancements in: speech and natural language, virtual reality, and human-centred computing and accessibility.
Speech and natural language input into our computers is something that we have all struggled with. It’s slowly getting better but nowhere near as fluent as we’d like. The predictions for 2017 state that speech and language applications will become increasingly multilingual in 2017 and that they will begin to “understand, process, and generate the language that an English-Spanish or a French-Arabic or a Hindi-English speaker uses effortlessly when she switches from one language to another.” This effectively means our personal assistants will have the ability to act as built in translators! Microsoft has already brought early versions of this technology to Skype text chat and shown off prototypes of it in action on a Skype audio call. Expect this to forge onwards.
Looking ahead to 2027 the research indicates that language models will be so advanced that they will be able to communicate with humans effortlessly in different social situations, negotiating, debating, and persuading. While this doesn’t sound like much on the surface it means that computer models will be aware of the context of the conversation being had and be able to swap words or inflections to become more convincing and more human. This is important because we often feel awkward when having a discussion with a computer or digital assistant. If these advancements do happen then we can expect voice to become a new form of interaction as ubiquitous as the keyboard and mouse.
Virtual reality has been a discussion of gaming and the future for years. It was only over the last year that consumer based virtual reality became affordable. In 2017 Microsoft sees virtual reality being enhanced with better body tracking enabling a better experience of virtual avatars in a first person perspective. Ultimately this means that while we will still need bulky headsets to experience true virtual reality we will have a better experience when engaging with others due to enhanced body tracking. This is the most important aspect of virtual reality to focus on right now because as a new technology if its level of immersion is low or poor it’s unlikely to see a positive uptake.
By 2027 Microsoft sees virtual reality as being ubiquitous and providing “rich multisensorial experiences capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceived reality.” Virtual reality in 2027 will also expand to our other senses as well only enhancing the experience. Microsoft likely sees the future of virtual reality as the future of their personal entertainment division (Xbox). This bodes well for all gamers because we’ve already seen a merging of the Xbox and the PC for gaming. We’re only going to see that integration deepen and when combined with 2027’s virtual reality the entire gaming landscape is open for a seismic shift.
Human-centred computing is a topic that gained prominence in the 1990s and 2000s because when computers first arrived they were far from usable. Microsoft feels that 2017 will offer those with visual disabilities the opportunity to become power users of personal agents (Cortana, Siri, Google Now). From the original inception of these services they have always felt more targeted towards a hands free audience than actual users wanting to accomplish a task. With an increased focus on reliability and usefulness combined with natural language we can look forward to another method of interaction becoming more usable.
Microsoft looks to 2027 as enabling every child including those with disabilities the ability to learn to code. Beyond that these individuals with disabilities will “bring their unique experience of the world to change the landscape of technology.” It’s often said that we don’t know what new technology we need until it’s created. This is entirely true when looking at the technological landscape from the perspective of someone with a disability. If those with disabilities can be empowered to create technology there’s no telling what kind of software or interaction methods will be created.
I write this article to highlight the fact that we are potentially at the beginning of another transformative period in our technological landscape. I also hope that readers will realize that what we use today and rely on is truly antiquated but can not be replaced over night due to user inertia. There are better options out there but they will take time to develop. Finally, it seems very apparent to me that Microsoft has the superior public technological vision compared to both Apple and Google. Microsoft is who we should look towards if we want to move towards the future.