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A Decade of Inventive Design
Microsoft Research
July 16, 2013 9:00 AM PT

Plant a seed, watch it grow.

But how much water will it need? How much sunlight? What should you do if insects attack?

You’ll find the answers in an ingenious new app. It’s called Greenery, and it’s one of nine entries in the 2013 Microsoft Research Design Expo, an annual showcase and competition for student designers from leading universities around the world.

Created by a team from Universidad Iberoamericana, based in Mexico City, Greenery is a perfect example of how students take the annual Design Expo theme—this year, it’s Making Data Useful: Improving Your Life, Community, and World—and interpret it through their own cultural context.

Greenery logo
The logo for Greenery, a Design Expo project from Universidad Iberoamericana.

Greenery lets you plant and tend a virtual garden and see the results in real time, based on the actual weather conditions in your city. For Mexico’s city dwellers—more than three quarters of the country’s population—the app could help promote sustainable food production and improve the urban environment.

Like all of the prototypes being presented during the Design Expo in Redmond, Wash., from July 14 to 16, this one grew out of a semester-long design course in which small teams create and build projects with potential real-world impact. Microsoft Research offers grant funding and curricular guidance, and it provides some of the company’s leading interactive-design researchers as mentors. Each university chooses a team to represent it for the Design Expo, part of Microsoft’s annual Faculty Summit, being held July 15-16.

Founded 10 years ago by Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs, Design Expo has attracted a steady stream of impressive young innovators, including Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, who was a graduate student in New York University’s (NYU’s) Interactive Telecommunications Program when he participated.

The Universidad Iberoamericana class had the benefit of guidance from Microsoft mentors Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a FUSE Labs researcher, and Tobias Kinnebrew, a Microsoft creative director. They initially communicated with the students via Skype and then spent two days at the university brainstorming with them. Kinnebrew later returned to Mexico for another in-person session, during which the team for Design Expo was selected.

The mentors not only help students refine their ideas, they also share their own work and experience. Monroy-Hernández conducts advanced research in social computing and is the creator of the Scratch Online Community and a co-founder of Sana, a mobile health-care system for the developing world.

“I liked that the students converged on a theme and a cause that is really meaningful to them: environmentalism and sustainability,” says Monroy-Hernández, who grew up in northern Mexico and attended university there before earning his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “As inhabitants of one of the largest cities in the globe, people in Mexico City are really keen on exploring ways of finding greener lifestyles.”

Technical Design, Social Context

The mentors challenge the students to go beyond the technical aspects of design and understand the social context in which they hope to make an impact with their project.

“The most challenging aspect of any technical project dealing with societal issues such as environmentalism and sustainable food,” Monroy-Hernández says, “is not the technology, but the complexity of the structural issues in society that try to preserve the status quo.”

Once the teams arrive in Redmond, they continue to gather feedback and practice their 10-minute presentations in front of a panel of Microsoft researchers. Their final presentations are delivered to an international audience of academics and Microsoft researchers attending the Faculty Summit. Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, is among the keynote speakers during this year’s Faculty Summit, as is technology visionary Clay Shirky, who teaches the Design Expo course at New York University and who contributed this year’s theme.

Presentation skills, teamwork, and the ability to respond quickly to critiques all factor into the final Design Expo awards, which include Best Product Concept and Most Likely to Be a Product.

In addition to Universidad Iberoamericana, this year’s nine participating schools—the largest number at Design Expo to date—include Carnegie Mellon University; NYU; the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); the University of Washington; Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya; India’s National Institute of Design; the University of Northumbria of the United Kingdom; and the Netherlands’ Technische Universiteit Eindhoven.

The Israeli team will be presenting Clashers, a location-based music app that enables users to discover what people within 100 meters are listening to and to hear it simultaneously.

Clashers visualization
The Clashers project enables users to find out what others nearby are listening to and to hear it themselves.

“Clashers enhances the users’ urban experience and provokes them to engage with the world around them,” says IDC Herzliya student Noy Brilon, who notes that the team’s primary design challenge was finding the right balance between the app’s music-discovery capabilities and the user’s own listening experience and personal space.

For Brilon, the opportunity to learn from experts in the field, as well as from other student teams, is an exciting aspect of the Design Expo.

“We hope to receive practical feedback that will help us improve our design,” she says, “to get acquainted with leading figures in the field of interactive design, and to share knowledge we gained about designing a location-based music app.”

The Design Expo themes are broad enough to inspire a wide range of ideas and design prototypes. Themes from past years include Service Meets Social (2010), Get Connected, Stay Connected (2011), and Information in My World (2012).

The list of participating schools changes every year, which has enabled Microsoft to build relationships with nearly all of the top design programs around the world and to collaborate with their faculties.

Gabe Clapper, a user-experience design lead at Microsoft, competed in the Design Expo in 2008, when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon. Inspired by the theme of Learning and Education, Clapper and his teammates created a mobile app for helping people manage their money.

The Design Expo experience was instrumental in leading Clapper to a career at Microsoft. During a Design Expo party, he had a long conversation with the director of the Windows design team.

“We stayed in touch afterward, and I ended up interviewing and accepting the position,” Clapper says. “Considering that experience, there is a very direct tie between the Design Expo and my career here at Microsoft.”

All of Clapper’s 2008 teammates are still active in the design field.

“One member is a user-experience director at a New York–based agency,” he says. “Others work for other design firms or their own startups.”

Marianne Giesemann Epstein is another Design Expo alumna who now works at Microsoft. Her 2010 team from Universidad Iberoamericana created a system to help universities and companies collaborate in offering technical training and job opportunities to high school dropouts in Mexico.

‘Brilliant, Creative People’

“I think being part of Design Expo ultimately was the key for me to take the position I have now in the company,” Giesemann says. “Aside from the obvious networking that happens in this event, it really opened my eyes to what Microsoft really is and does. Being so far from Redmond, you don't have any visibility to the amazing work and the amount of brilliant, creative people that are part of it.

“Meeting people my age who share the same passions and aspirations, despite the very different cultural backgrounds, was and is still very valuable to me,” she adds. “That’s probably why, three years after participating in Design Expo, I haven’t missed any of the newer generations of designers presenting.”

Cheng, who is co-chairing the 2013 event with Michael Kasprow of Trapeze, says that Microsoft and the entire design community are enriched by the students’ diverse cultural perspectives and their approach to problem solving.

“We know that those who have grown up with technology and have lived in different environments are needed to give us more perspective on the types of problems we should address,” Cheng says. “I can’t think of anyone better than students in Mexico, Israel, India, New York City, Los Angeles, and more talking about social, city, and personal data from their local cultures.”

Christian Moeller, a UCLA professor whose design course has yielded a 2013 entry that generates visual projections based on motion data, says that the Design Expo “provides unique support for the stimulation of new ideas in an academic setting.”

“Over the course of a class, this allows students to explore ideas and concepts with greater freedom and departmental support,” he says. “This context creates both more individual responsibility and liberation on the part of the student. Additionally, the opportunity to interact with students from other universities around the world is a beautiful opportunity to have as a young, emerging artist.”

UCLA Design Expo entry
UCLA's Design Expo project is a light display projected on the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a translation of the movements of Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

The UCLA entry, from graduate student Refik Anadol, involves translating the movements of Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel into a light display projected onto the interior and exterior of Los Angeles’ Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Already a seasoned artist, Anadol has earned acclaim in Europe, North America, and his native Turkey for his immersive audio/visual installations.

“The challenge presented by the Microsoft Design Expo is fortunately not limited to ideas and inventions with only product potential,” Moeller says. “This grants students greater freedom to explore without commercial constraints while holding them accountable to real-world evaluation and critique. This year’s theme of ‘data’ cannot be more generous, in that there are many avenues open for exploration.”

Whether it’s teaching Mexico’s city residents about urban gardening, building community in Israel through the sharing of music, or creating a visual symphony from the passionate gestures of a Venezuelan-born conductor, the Design Expo provides a rich context for fostering an international community of design innovation and talent—as well as improving the world through technology.

It’s like planting a seed and watching it grow.