Microsoft UK’s Director of Search on Windows 8, the multiscreen experience, and envisioning the future of technology

dave coplin

In this three-part interview for Brightfire, Microsoft UK’s Chief Envisioning Officer, aka Director of Search, talks about the future of technology, winning the trust of consumers, the EU cookie law and the latest Microsoft products and services.

-          Dave, you have a rather unusual job title – “Chief Envisioning Officer” – and you co-run a blog called The Envisioners. What made you go for this name?

-          That’s right. I use a range of job titles and that one is my favourite. It describes something that we have to do but don’t do a lot of. Every day we get stuck in the things that we have to do that day. Maybe we’re working on a project with a client or thinking about a product that we’re branding but we’re very much locked into the mindset of today. We only think about what we’re doing today. But sometimes it’s really important to take a step back and think: “What will this stuff look like in five years’ time or ten years’ time?” and that’s a process that we call “envisioning”.

the envisioners blog

So if you really spend time thinking about how the world might possibly change, it often transforms the way you think about what you’re doing today. I’m very lucky that Microsoft, and in particular Bing, have empowered me to do that for Microsoft, to stitch together all of the incredible developments and technologies that not just we’re working on but we think are happening around the world, and really reflect that back to our customers, and also inside the organisation.

Chief Envisioning Officer means that it’s my job to think about the future, and think about how the world might be different, and then strike a conversation with lots of people about – if that happens, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities, what does the government need to do, and so on.

-          One of the developments that you predict is a future where people’s perception of screens will change, as you said in your Internet World keynote. There has also been mention of screen convergence coming with Windows 8. Would you agree that the upcoming launch of Windows 8 is a landmark move towards a seamless screen experience?

-          A “landmark move”… I don’t think it’s the big change I’m predicting. I think there’re two things happening – on a shorter term for the next couple of years, I think things like Windows 8 are going to really show the world how important having lots of screens, lots of displays, is. If you remember, just a few years ago we all used to think about having a single monitor. Now lots of people have got dual monitors, some of them even have more than two. And I’m not just talking about geeks and coders, and designers; I’m talking about regular, normal human beings.

What if every flat surface is effectively a display? Every window, every table, every wall, every floor? All of those things are surfaces that can be used to display information. And that starts to really change the whole perception of what a display may be.

And when you start to see the kind of things that you can display, and the price of displays goes down, you think very differently about that screen real estate. And Windows 8 specifically is designed to make lots of use of that screen real estate. If you’ve got a surface to display things on, there’re plenty of things to display. I think Windows 8 opens that up much more broadly but it’s kind of the same thing we’re seeing today.

windows8_preview

What I think is going to happen in the future is the most wonderful technological development about display technology. And today, when we think about displays, we think about bits of plastic and glass that sit on our desks. The stuff that we’re thinking about, and have developed in our labs, and other companies have, too, is: “What if every flat surface is effectively a display? Every window, every table, every wall, every floor?” All of those things are surfaces that can be used to display information. And that starts to really change the whole perception of what a display may be.

What happens if every display surface is an interactive surface as well? So actually the screen knows who’s in front of it, whether they’re looking at the screen or not, or either with a gesture of the hand or touch or even an eye movement they can interact with the display.

And on top of that, today a screen is almost like a one-dimensional experience – it displays stuff to the user, to the reader. But there’s no real interaction; I can’t go to a screen and interact with it. I have to use a computer or a keyboard, or a mouse. What happens if every display surface is an interactive surface as well? So actually the screen knows who’s in front of it, whether they’re looking at the screen or not, or either with a gesture of the hand or touch, or even an eye movement they can interact with the display.

minority-report-ui

And, OK, all these things may be ten years away. I know this is an example I used in the Internet World presentation but if you see a science fiction film now that was created in the 1980s or early 1990s, it all looks a bit funny because they often have a computer and it will have one of these old-fashioned CRT monitors, and you look at it, and you think: “Oh, God, that’s a bit clunky, I remember when they were all like that.” We’re going to feel the same when we watch Minority Report in 10 years’ time or other films like that that feel really futuristic now but actually they still rely on bits of plastic and glass as the display surface. And we’ll think: ”Oh, that’s really old fashioned.” That change is coming and that’s the big change.

…it’s really about putting the right content on the right device, rather than the same content on any device.

I think the other stuff, just to go back to the short-term prediction – a few years ago we used to talk about screen convergence in terms of providing the same experience on different screens. So I would get the same experience on a PC, on a TV and on a phone. And I think there’s another evolution that we’re coming to now, which is… that’s not quite the right answer. What we want is the right content on the right device. So if I’m watching a movie at home on my big flat screen display, and I’m sat there with my phone or slate, don’t use some of the screen on the big TV to put my social media on or stuff that’s relevant to what I’m watching; put it on the other device. Be sensible about which device you use to display what kind of content. That’s the short-term evolution, and again, Windows 8 will play a large part of that but it’s really about putting the right content on the right device, rather than the same content on any device.

We think a TV is smart simply because we put a network cable in it. And I think it’s ridiculous. I actually want my TV to be dumb; I want it to be stupid. I just want it to show the thing I’m watching. I want other devices around me to be really smart, but the TV itself needs to be dumb.

-          A recent report by Econsultancy, The Multiscreen Marketer, echoes your advice by arguing that content has to be tailored to the specific device and to the people consuming that content.

-          Exactly. I think we do ourselves a disservice by talking about Smart TV in the way we talk about it today. We think a TV is smart simply because we put a network cable in it. And I think it’s ridiculous. I actually want my TV to be dumb; I want it to be stupid. I just want it to show the thing I’m watching. I want other devices around me to be really smart but the TV itself needs to be dumb. And I think the concept of connected TV is much more helpful to what we’re doing.

I don’t know if you’ve come across an application called Zbox or not.  It’s a lovely example of what you think connected experience is going to be. It’s an application that you run on your phone or your slate and it effectively synchronises the TV you’re watching. So as I’m watching X Factor, for example, it knows when the adverts are playing, it knows which advert I’m listening to. Because it’s a social platform, not only have I got the social chat about the TV that I’m watching, but it also can now bring in content especially for me about the advert I’ve just seen or about the TV show that I’m watching.

It’s a sense of augmenting the experience, building on top of the show, rather than trying to duplicate what the show’s doing. And that to me, the whole connected TV idea, is a really interesting development that’s going to change the way we consume media.

About the expert
Since joining Microsoft in 2005, Dave Coplin has worked across a wide range of sectors and customers, providing strategic advice and guidance around the cost effective use of technology in relation to their business needs. As an established thought leader in the UK and having spent a considerable amount of time in the Public Sector providing leadership and guidance around key technology policy issues like Cloud Computing, Open Government, Open Data and the “consumerisation” of IT, Dave is currently working as Director of Search for Microsoft UK ’s Consumer and Online business, focusing the spotlight on the power and potential of search and the way it holds the key to society’s effective use of all that technology and the internet has to offer.
 

Image sources: Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons and www.theenvisioners.com