By Suzanne Ross
September 22, 2000 12:00 AM PT
Researchers have a habit of experimenting on themselves consider Dr. Jekyll. Microsoft researchers aren't any exception to this rule, which is why employees in the Research department might soon find themselves on camera as they run to the kitchen to grab some Good N' Plentys or a cup of coffee.
Anoop Gupta, the manager of the Collaboration and Multimedia group, wanted to virtually connect researchers located across multiple buildings and floors. The project, code-named Virtual Kitchen, is a collection of audio and video equipment linking the separate kitchens into a single virtual space. The intent is to create more opportunities for social interaction.
Virtual Kitchen was invented after Microsoft Research (MSR) employees moved to their new quarters at Cedar Court. When they lived on the main campus, their digs included an airy, carpeted stairway that ran through the center of the building. Researchers would see each other walking up and down the stairs or meet a colleague heading into one of the kitchens, which were located on the wide landings at the top of the stairways on each floor. It had the feel of a busy, exciting community space.
According to Gina Venolia, the project's user interface designer, this open space led to spontaneous conversations and an exchange of gray matter among the researchers. These interactions, Venolia says, are "incredibly important to getting the work done, they have cash value to Microsoft."
The new building, on the other hand, is a delight to dedicated introverts. The stairways, instead of being open and attractive, are hermetically sealed visions of industrial pink cement behind thick doors at the ends of the building. Research is now spread out over two buildings and seven floors, instead of one building with three floors. The kitchens, located near the elevators, are quick way stations for a cup of java instead of the cozy conversation-brewers they were on the main campus.
However, the echo from the big bang heard years ago when other companies failed with the video phone was loud enough to make the developers of Virtual Kitchen proceed with caution. Venolia says, "Video connected space is not the same as visibly connected space. Any gesture you make has to be extremely broad to be seen in a few dozen pixels. You can't make subtle gestures. People are great at adapting to different things, but only if they want to�only if there's something in it for them."
Gavin Jancke, the development engineer on the project, is attempting to solve the technical problems. One of the biggest challenges was the computational requirements. Each of the kitchens capture, compress and stream audio and video at 374x244 pixels, and then decode and receive three other videos at once. To make the interactions between kitchens as natural as possible, the delay needed to be under a quarter of a second.
Current technologies are peer-to-peer and have unacceptable delays due to buffering. They don't provide interfaces to analyze audio and modify the captured audio/video data, control compression, or change the frame rate or image size. Jancke had to develop his own proprietary software to solve these problems. Another big challenge was the audio�the kitchens are completely open mike, open speaker, and picked up the noise of the refrigerator, the microwave, vending machines, and clanking cans. The noise echoed, as there is nothing in the kitchen to absorb the sound, such as squishy carpet and furniture. Jancke needed to find a way to avoid echo and acoustic feedback. Existing echo cancellation software didn't work as claimed, and hardware solutions were pricey or inconsistent. He found a solution brewing in a Microsoft product group. Jancke worked with the group's developer to tweak the code, and it worked. "You can have lots of noise in the kitchen and there's just no echo or feedback," says Jancke. He also developed a solution that would identify and filter errant feedback tones that might slip through and cause a screeching, earache-producing noise.
In addition, he needed to take care of the daily housekeeping and get the computer to turn the projectors and speakers on and off automatically. He developed the electronics and software to do this.
Meanwhile, Venolia was considering the social problems�such as people's reluctance to be seen on camera. She points out that we are under observation all the time. Grocery stores, restaurants, and a street corner: all have video cameras acting like digital police. She says that they're trying to produce some good out of the technology that already exists by making it a plus for the observed.
Venolia has provided privacy features for the Virtual Kitchen. She placed a large, red, can't-miss-it button that says "OFF" right outside the kitchen, allowing the camera-shy to "opt-out" of the virtual experience. Jancke integrated motion detectors with the PC. Venolia also prepared the kitchen users for the system deployment by placing posters on the wall showing a mock-up of the Virtual Kitchen display. The camera was poised above the counters for weeks before the deployment, letting people get used to it, ignore it, and generally forget about it. She's also provided a question and answer forum on an internal Microsoft Web site to explore participant's objections and suggestions.
The video displays the images of each of the three kitchens and a news feed onto a blank wall. If you can't think of anything to say to the co-worker who is clutching a Twinkie in one hand and licking a blob of creme filling off his chin as he stares at you from the video display, just glance at the news ticker and say, "How about them Mariners?"