TechFest ’07: Innovation on Inimitable Display
By Rob Knies
March 2, 2007 6:00 AM PT

One thing that strikes those even casually acquainted with Microsoft Research is the immense scope of the work performed by the hundreds of researchers spread among the organization’s five labs worldwide.

Whether it be high-level conceptualization about the future of technology or more immediately accessible efforts to improve consumers’ media experiences, there are few aspects of the IT revolution that have not been touched—and advanced—by Microsoft Research computer scientists in the 15 years since the group was formed in 1991.

Such achievements have continued to gain momentum over the years, and the cream of the latest crop will be on full display in Redmond on March 7-8 during the seventh annual TechFest, to be held at the Microsoft Conference Center on the company’s main campus.

In advance of the event, Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, will deliver a keynote address at 9 a.m. Pacific Time on March 6, to be joined by Rico Malvar, a Microsoft distinguished engineer recently chosen to become the new managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond. The keynote can be heard via Webcast on http://research.microsoft.com and will be available, along with a wealth of images, video, and other resources, at http://research.microsoft.com/aboutmsr/techfest/default.aspx.

The show, which has grown to the point where nearly 7,000 Microsoft employees attended TechFest 2006, offers a bit of symbiosis for both researchers and visiting employees. The former get a chance to exchange ideas and concepts with peers, showcase their latest innovative work, and put a focus on the potential that computing holds to further enhance the lives of users around the globe.

What’s in it for those who attend TechFest? Simple. They get a chance to mingle with researchers, pick their brains for exciting new ideas, and inquire about the latest innovations available to be deployed in the array of products Microsoft builds. Such partnerships have, on numerous occasions, produced successful collaborations between researchers and product groups, to the mutual benefit of both—and, ultimately, to the audience of enterprise customers, small and medium-sized businesses, and home consumers who are enabled to build their individual visions of the future atop the platforms such collaborations provide.

Rashid knows. As head of Microsoft Research, he is in a unique position to survey both the breadth and the depth of the endeavors performed by those from labs located in Redmond; Silicon Valley; Cambridge, England; Beijing; and Bangalore, India. Here’s what Rashid has to say about the show:

“TechFest is one-stop shopping to see and experience the breadth of software innovations we’re pursuing that will allow people to explore their interests more deeply and share the things they care about more easily.”

Mary Czerwinski, a Redmond-based research-area manager, provides a complementary observation.

“What’s cool about TechFest,” Czerwinski says, “is the palpable energy and excitement obvious in both the researchers talking about their projects and the attendees who get jazzed about the direction we are taking.”

There are also testimonials of a more grass-roots variety. A few comments gleaned at random from attendees on the floor of last year’s TechFest:

  • “This is my favorite event of the year.”
  • “I like getting the chance to talk to researchers face-to-face.”
  • “It’s a really, really great opportunity for people in the product groups to see what research is doing.”
  • “I think it’s beautiful.”
  • “I’ve never seen so many geeks in my life!”

Well, yes, there are “geeks” in attendance at TechFest, “geeks” who will be determining the lay of the technological land over the next 5-10 years. They’ve been working hard to get a chance to display their latest research wares—in a mind-boggling variety of disciplines. Consider the six loosely amalgamated themes for this year’s show:

  • Emerging Markets and Research Partners.
  • Hardware, Devices and Mobile Computing.
  • Search, Interaction and Collaboration.
  • Software, Theory and Security.
  • Systems, Networking and Databases.
  • User Interfaces, Graphics and Media.

In other words, for those of a technological bent, something for everyone.

Not only do attending employees get a chance to get up-close and personal with no fewer than 156 demos—hearing detailed descriptions, asking questions, engaging in a bit of give-and-take—but there are also 24 academic-style lectures to be delivered, in lecture-hall-like surroundings. While the ultimate goal of TechFest might be the transfer of technology, during the show itself, what occurs is nothing less than a transfer of intellect.

But don’t get the idea this is some sort of straitlaced, whisper-if-you-dare gathering. Such lofty-minded results are achieved within an atmosphere of genuine conviviality. It’s a big party, TechFest, noisy and boisterous and just a tad unruly. Attendees jostle for position in front of popular booths. Loud laughter can be heard, as can hearty greetings being exchanged between colleagues based halfway around the world. Oohs and aahs are audible.

Of course, they are. It’s a bit like magic, really, all this turning ideas into reality. At Microsoft Research, it’s been going on for 15 years now. Those who throng to TechFest 2007 will get a glimpse at the sort of magic the next 15 years have to offer.