The Seven Ps of Research
Darren EdgeWhen I first arrived at Microsoft Research Asia, I was told by my manager that work at the lab revolves around the six Ps of research: People, Programmes, Prototypes, Patents, Papers, and Products. Having now spent a year and a half working as a Researcher here, I am now beginning to appreciate how deeply each of these Ps are embedded in the culture of this remarkable workplace. As with most good things in life, it all begins with the people.
Over the course of my education and research career to date, I have been privileged to spend so much of my time in the company of great people. Prior to my move to Beijing, I spent seven years at the University of Cambridge obtaining both a BA degree in Computer Science and Management Studies, and a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction. Working in the William Gates Building (home of Cambridge University Computer Laboratory), next door to Microsoft Research Cambridge, I was always inspired by the people I met from Microsoft Research, their reputation in the academic community, and the freedom with which they pursued their research interests. Supported by the guidance and encouragement of my PhD supervisor, Alan Blackwell, I decided to investigate opportunities for joining Microsoft Research. Almost as soon as I had begun, I saw the path I needed to take. The challenge was simply irresistible: I wanted to live in a different culture, I wanted to learn a new language, and I wanted to work in a place where, through the sheer force of your will and imagination, you could potentially touch the lives of millions of people. I wanted to work at Microsoft Research Asia.
It happens that I had visited Beijing before, for three days in the summer of 2006, as the first stop on a month-long tour of China. On this trip I fell in love with China; the sights, the culture, the language, and of course, the people. Before I knew it, on the afternoon of 11 July 2007, I was sitting around a coffee table with my supervisor Alan; an assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, Ken Wood; and an assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, Jian Wang. We were discussing life in Beijing, work at Microsoft Research, and my PhD project on tangible user interfaces. Application screening permitting, I was told that I should submit an application and come for interviews in the autumn (which I was told then, and can vouch for now, is a truly special time to be in Beijing). All of a sudden my life changed: my PhD no longer seemed like an endless expanse of time, my goal of working at Microsoft Research Asia became a real possibility, and I really had to contemplate moving to the other side of the world. After a short but exhausting trip to Beijing for interviews, surrounded on either side by much dissertation writing, I found myself boarding my one-way flight to Beijing. I didn’t really know what to expect from life in China, but I knew to expect nothing less than the extraordinary from my new life at Microsoft Research Asia.
I was not disappointed. At Microsoft Research Asia, I am surrounded by exceptional people every day, from managers and employees to visitors and interns, and working with them is always a pleasure. Ever since I began my Microsoft career, I have been given every kind of responsibility and freedom needed to flourish in research. This occurred first through the support of my initial manager, Jian Wang, and since through the guidance of my second manager, Wei-Ying Ma. A special characteristic of Microsoft Research Asia is that you don’t become an expert by working here: you are already considered to be an expert in your chosen field when you arrive. Over time you are expected to accumulate further knowledge and expertise by collaborating across disciplinary boundaries, becoming a technology visionary rather than a technology follower. This is something that Jian and Wei-Ying have both achieved, and something they have taught me to aspire to.
The ‘people’ aspect of the six Ps doesn’t simply cover the manager-employee relationship though; it pervades the whole system of relationships between managers, employees, and interns alike. It is people who come together under a shared vision, forming the second P of research: research programmes that transform visions into reality.
A research programme can be a single project, but often it reflects a higher level theme that spans multiple projects. I was lucky enough to join Microsoft Research Asia in a transitional period for work related to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), in which HCI researchers, interaction designers, and user experience specialists came together to found the Microsoft Research Asia HCI research group, as well as the research programmes that will drive our work over the coming years. I was most instrumental in the creation of a research programme based on Natural Clients+Cloud Interaction, but this was not a new project plan as such. Rather, it aligned with two strategic areas for Microsoft Research — natural interaction and clients+cloud computing — in such a way that incorporated a number of existing projects and provided a roadmap for the future. There is one particular piece of work that can be seen as the origin of this programme, but it was not a large-scale project. It was instead the result of the third ‘P’ of research: the creation of a prototype that allowed us to experience a new way of engaging with information, media, or other people through the use of digital technology.
The prototype I am talking about is the Sticky Notes in Mixed Reality system, based on the idea that information can be organized and accessed through virtual sticky notes that appear to float in the physical space around our bodies, in a way that combines the advantages of using the physical surfaces of our environment (e.g., the glance-ability of paper sticky notes on a wall) with the advantages of using the virtual surfaces of our computer displays (e.g., the interactivity of windows on a desktop). The idea is difficult to communicate in words and pictures alone — it is so far removed from our everyday experiences of technology that some aspects of the interaction need to be simulated or instantiated in a prototype before the idea can be presented, discussed, refined, and evaluated with potential users. The demonstration prototype for the Sticky Notes idea was built by a single Microsoft Research Asia intern – Kyungmin Min — a PhD candidate from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). It is a great example of how an idea can be transformed into a prototype by a talented intern, and how a prototype can inspire a new programme of research based on the power of the underlying idea — that we should more fully utilise our natural interaction capabilities to be able to engage with digital information in a wider range of naturalistic situations.
A prototype is not just a manifestation of an idea, however: it opens up further possibilities for capitalising on that idea, in terms of writing a patent, publishing a paper, transferring the technology to a Microsoft product, or all of the above. These are the final three aspects of the six Ps, of which papers and patents are the bread and butter of research at Microsoft Research Asia. They are a way of claiming, consolidating, and communicating ideas, as well as the findings that the resulting prototypes generate. Since I joined Microsoft Research Asia, I have worked on prototypes, patents, and papers in a number of diverse areas, from the design, development, and deployment of touch interfaces for use by television presenters during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, via the creation of tools and techniques for the analytic design of tangible user interfaces, to the investigation of how touch-enabled mobile phones can be used in conjunction with video eyewear peripherals.
I haven’t yet transferred any technologies to Microsoft products, but I have had some very enlightening experiences at the annual Microsoft TechFest event. This embodies the & in R&D according to my TechFest 2008 polo shirt, and is where the researchers at Microsoft Research get to travel to Microsoft HQ in Redmond to show off their demos, give talks, and meet with the product groups. At TechFest 2008, just after I joined Microsoft Research Asia, my role was mainly as an observer — to support the people in my group with their demos, to talk to people in other research groups, and to experience the international culture and diversity of Microsoft.
Our project demo at TechFest 2009A year on, at TechFest 2009, I was very happy that my demo had been accepted and that I would be giving my own demonstration of the Sticky Notes prototype. I was even happier that of all the demos being shown to Microsoft employees, my demo was selected for exhibition to the press and special guests on the TechFest Public Day. The day was very successful and resulted in a number of mentions in the international press — something I hope to build on in the coming years. However, it was with even greater delight that I was asked to present my first ever TechFest demo to Bill Gates. After I had given him a walkthrough of the system and the interaction scenarios, we had a long discussion about the relative merits of a having a third spatial dimension to organise information. Were three dimensions better than two? How? Why? Do we make sense in and have memory for the depth dimension, or just cope with the overlapping mess? One after another, in what felt like a very surreal experience, I had to contend with a series of seriously insightful questions. In the end I think I gave a good account of the idea, and I’m looking forward to the chance to do it again in future years.
When I’m not facing the challenges of work as a researcher, during weekends and vacations, I like to spend my time exploring Beijing, China, and the rest of Asia. In the last year and a half, I feel like I have seen and done more than in all of my previous 26 years put together. One particular highlight was scaling the 4095m peak of Mount Kinabalu on the equatorial island of Borneo, before recovering on a small island that was populated by monkeys, monitor lizards, and wild boar, and surrounded by giant clams, coral reef, and more fish than I have ever seen before. Some people would call this a work-life balance, but for a researcher there is no clear separation between the two. When you are at work, you might think about the next mountain you are going to climb. When you are on a real mountain, you might think about the metaphorical mountain you have to climb in your research. Real or metaphorical, mountains are for climbing, and you simply have to reach the top. This article is called the seven Ps of Research, but so far I have only talked about the six Ps that were told to me. That is because there is a seventh P that all these others revolve around, that drives a researcher to climb to the top of the mountain and think outside of the box, then find a higher mountain and invent a better box to think outside. It is passion: a passion for research, a passion for exploration, a passion for new challenges, and a passion for life. That is why I work at Microsoft Research Asia.
The summit of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo.