Microsoft unveils self-sketching whiteboard prototype

By Leo Kelion
Technology reporter

  • Published
Bongshin Lee and Microsoft's digital canvas
Image caption,
Microsoft says that its digital canvas still needs many years of work until it will be ready for market

Microsoft is working on an interactive whiteboard that aims to interpret users' sketches to complete the diagrams they were drawing.

The firm will unveil the prototype as part of Techfest - an annual event where its researchers reveal some of the projects they are working on.

The digital canvas is designed to help workers make sense of "big data" - the growing amount of information available from sensors and other sources.

The project is still at an early stage.

However, one analyst suggested there would be significant demand for such a product if Microsoft was able to overcome the hurdles involved in bringing it to fruition.

Microsoft spent $9.8bn (£6.5bn) on research and development in its last financial year.

That is less than Samsung Electronics' $10.5bn investment but more than Apple's $3.4bn, Sony's $4.6bn and Google's $6.8bn R&D tallies.

Storytelling with data

The demonstration of SketchInsight will be hosted by Bongshin Lee at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The user interface expert has worked on interactive display technologies since joining the firm in 2006.

She will show how a user could draw an image on a large touchscreen to call on pre-loaded data to create interactive charts, maps or other diagrams.

One example she has rehearsed involves research into people's energy use.

By drawing stick figures Dr Lee can bring up a graph showing the spread of the population covered by the study, and then by sketching a battery alongside it she can bring up another chart illustrating how specific groups of people use different amounts of power.

Microsoft suggests the facility would be preferable to current presentation software, including its own Powerpoint program, in which such graphics must be prepared in advance of a presentation.

The project is one of several large-screen technologies under development by Microsoft which it believes will become more common both at work and home in the future.

"As computers grow more capable of handling massive amounts of data, they also need to become more intuitive to use," Kevin Kutz, spokesman for Microsoft Research, told the BBC.

"We're all about bringing that to life with new ways to engage with technology that emphasise voice, touch and gesture."

Tough challenge

While much of the current buzz in tech is focused on small high definition displays found in tablets, smartphones and smart watches, one analyst believes there is untapped demand for the tech giant's vision - not least because of all the data generated by the other gadgets.

Media caption,

Inside Microsoft's house of the future

"Much of the types of things that consumers and people in the business world are doing are focused around social networks and mobile - and that generates a lot of information," explained Brian Blau, a tech analyst at consultants Gartner.

"Businesses and brands especially have to understand those data streams. Interactive graphics can help reveal things you couldn't have seen normally otherwise - helping people with that task is going to be monumentally important in the future."

However, he added that the task Microsoft had set itself would likely prove hard to achieve since organisations measure data in a multitude of ways and need a wide variety of insights.

"Selling things like a machine part is different to selling a subscription to Netflix which is different to to selling an apple on a cart," he explained.

"The metrics have to be tailored for each one of these circumstances and companies are still likely to need experts in their own business to be able to run something like this if it's to be useful."

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