My final story for Wired.com appeared August 31. It’s a look at some of the work that the scientists and engineers in Microsoft’s research division are doing to create the computer interface — and communications screens — of the future.
REDMOND, Washington — Deep inside Microsoft is the brain of a mad scientist.
You might not think so, given the banality of the company’s ubiquitous products: Windows, Office, Hotmail, Exchange Server, Active Directory. The days are long past when this kind of software could light up anyone’s imagination, except maybe an accountant’s.
But Microsoft has an innovative side that’s still capable of producing surprises. In fact, Microsoft spends more than $9 billion a year, and employs tens of thousands of people in research and development alone. While most of that goes toward coding the next versions of the company’s major products, a lot gets funneled into pure research and cutting-edge engineering.
Much of that work happens in Building 99 and Studio B here on Microsoft’s campus.
Building 99 is a think tank in the classic sense: It’s a beautifully-designed building packed to the gills with hundreds of scientists — about half of Microsoft’s researchers work here. In the middle is a tall, airy atrium designed by the architect to facilitate collaboration and the kind of chance meetings that can lead to serendipitous discoveries.
Many of the brainiacs who work in Building 99 are researching areas of computer science that may not have relevance to Microsoft’s bottom line for years, if ever. Heck, they may not have relevance to anything, ever, but the fundamental premise of basic research is that for every dozen, or hundred, or thousand off-the-wall projects, there’s one invention that turns out to be fabulously important and lucrative.
In fact, you only need one hit to make billions of dollars in research pay off, even if you waste the rest of the good ideas. As Malcolm Gladwell argued recently, Xerox, which is often derided for failing to take advantage of a series of amazing inventions at its Palo Alto Research Center, actually saw huge returns from just one invention: the laser printer. Against that, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Xerox PARC was home to hundreds of useless research projects, or that Xerox never figured out what to do with some of its research, like the graphical user interface.
If you’re old enough to remember the energy policies of the Carter administration, green enough to have donated to the Nature Conservancy and young enough to get a rush of testosterone from dusting that polo-shirt-wearing jerk in his BMW, Nissan has the car for you.
And though its styling walks a fine line between “grandpa’s luxury sedan” and “soccer mom sports car,” the 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid pulls off this delicate balancing act with grace.
The result isn’t superb on looks. As you’d expect, meeting so many different design goals results in a car that looks a little, well, melted-together. It’s not going to make anyone’s heart race on the inside, either, with slightly old-fashioned styling exemplified by the quaint analog clock in the dash.
The 10,000 year clock will look out over a spaceport and the West Texas desert.
High on a rocky ridge in the desert, nestled among the brush, is the topmost part of a clock that has been ticking for thousands of years.
It looks out over the ruins of a spaceport, built by a rich man whose name was forgotten long ago.
Most of the clock is deep inside the mountain, below the ridgeline. To get there, you hike for days through the heat; the only sounds are the buzzing of flies and the whisper of the occasional breeze. You climb up through the brush, then pass through a hidden door into the darkness and silence of the clock chamber. Far above your head, in the darkness, a massive pendulum swings slowly back and forth, making the clock tick once every 10 seconds.
No one knows who built it, or why. They built it well, and even now it keeps perfect time. All we know of these strange people is that they were obsessed with the future.
Why else would they build something that had no purpose except to mark time for thousands of years?
* * *
The rich man is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and he has indeed started construction on a clock that he hopes will run for 10,000 years.
For Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, the clock is not just the ultimate prestige timepiece. It’s a symbol of the power of long-term thinking. His hope is that building it will change the way humanity thinks about time, encouraging our distant descendants to take a longer view than we have.
1945: Arthur C. Clarke begins privately circulating copies of a paper that proposes using space satellites for global communications.
It was a bold suggestion for 1945, as the war was just winding down and most people were undoubtedly more concerned about the necessities of life than they were with beaming radio waves down from space. But Clarke, a physicist and budding science-fiction author, had his head firmly in the future. The paper, “The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications,” suggests that space stations could be used for broadcasting television signals (.pdf).
The Space-station was originally conceived as a refueling depot for ships leaving the Earth. As such it may fill an important though transient role in the conquest of space, during the period when chemical fuels are employed…. However, there is at least one purpose for which the station is ideally suited and indeed has no practical alternative. This is the provision of world-wide ultra-high-frequency radio services, including television.
(Television itself was barely a commercial reality at this point, so that’s some forward thinking.)
Clarke followed up on this private paper with an article published in October 1945 in Wireless World titled, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” The paper discusses how rocket technology, such as that used in German V-2s during the war, could be turned to peaceful ends by launching artificial satellites into orbit. All you needed, Clarke argued, was a rocket capable of pushing a payload past an orbital-insertion velocity of 8 km/second [5 miles/second].
However, the smallest orbits — such as those that would be used by the Russian Sputnik satellites in the following decade — would circle the earth in about 90 minutes. Because of basic orbital mechanics, the farther out you could get a satellite, the slower its orbit around the Earth would be. At one point, about 42,000 km [about 26,100 miles] from the center of the Earth, the satellite’s orbit would be exactly 24 hours, the same as the Earth’s rotation. Clarke wrote, in Wireless World:
A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth’s equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set.
Clarke wasn’t the first to propose such an orbit, known as geostationary, but his essay did popularize the idea. And while it may have seemed far-fetched in 1945, it was less than 12 years before Sputnik and only 17 years before the first TV broadcast satellite, Telstar. Then, in 1965, Intelsat began launching the first satellite system based on geostationary satellites, and there are more than 300 such satellites in Clarke orbits today. The future of communications evolved much as Clarke had foreseen it.
Although Clarke eventually became more famous as a science-fiction author, penning such classics as 2001and Childhood’s End, he regarded his satellite proposal as more significant. I interviewed Clarke for a profile inMobile PC magazine’s March 2004 issue. The headline referred to him as “The Father of the Star Child.” He replied with this note, handwritten on a reprint of his original Wireless World story:
Appreciate the write-up in March … but I think being ‘father’ of the COMSAT more important than the Star Child!
Decades after its birth, the laser is still irresistibly cool.
How many other fifty-somethings can you say that about?
Even though lasers are as common as dirt now, appearing in everything from DVD players to supermarket scanners to computer mice, there’s still a certain appeal to a beam of coherent, monochromatic light. Especially if it’s dangerously powerful.
So it’s no surprise that people can’t resist playing with lasers, building their own, customizing them and, of course, setting stuff on fire with them.
Theodore Maiman probably never foresaw the ways his creation would be used when he first turned it on in 1960. But then again, he might be happy to know that someone has come up with actual laser rayguns.
Pulse Laser Gun Mk II
At the top of the do-it-yourself laser pyramid is this amazing pulse gun, capable of pumping out 1 megawatt of coherent light in short pulses.
As the video shows, that’s enough to punch holes in plastic and, of course, pop balloons. Add a focusing lens and the beam of laser light creates a tiny, intensely hot ball of plasma that can burn holes in aluminum and char wood.
It weighs almost 2 pounds, but has a self-contained battery pack capable of 50 shots. It may not be practical as a weapon, but like other powerful lasers, it’s very, very dangerous.
During our visit to his workspace, the aptly-named Hazardfactory, he demonstrated how two long propane-filled tubes can act as a kind of fiery audio EQ meter. He created a fierce ball of flame in the middle of a hoop-shaped sculpture he calls “The Singularity.” He showed off flame-throwing rayguns (sadly not currently in operation) and talked about how he was organizing a league to play one of his favorite sports, flaming tetherball.
And then, while standing next to several large propane tanks and a lot of gas-filled tubing, a visitor who was helping Oliver lit a cigarette.
No big deal, Oliver shrugged. If someone wants to set fire to the occasional cigarette in his shop, he’s OK with that.
This article is the first in a series of profiles about do-it-yourselfers and people who make amazing things.
Oliver, an artist, got into playing with fire after meeting Mark Pauline, the founder of Survival Research Laboratories, a San Francisco-area outfit that stages violent, destructive robot battles.
“It was the first kind of art I found really gripping,” says Oliver.
That was 10 or 15 years ago. Since then he’s made fire arts into a full-time business for himself. At Hazardfactory, a grungy but workmanlike space in Seattle’s industrial South Park district, he makes his artworks and does fabrication projects for clients, including Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve, the videogame publisher.
Oliver presides over the genial mess of his shop in a big leather apron and gloves. He’s got a ruggedly handsome face and the kind of big hands that could easily crush yours in a handshake if you aren’t careful.
When we visited, a few other people were there, sort of helping him and sort of just watching. Oliver teaches welding classes, sponsors power-tool drag-racer-construction workshops, and is organizing that flaming tetherball league.
He also does workshops with teenagers, teaching them how to weld and then setting them loose on a collection of scrap bicycles to see what rideable contraptions they can come up with.
Because Oliver’s sculptures are a little dangerous, he prefers to deliver them as performances rather than permanent installations. Watching him fiddle with the dials on multiple propane canisters, you can see that displaying a sculpture might be tricky.
About “The Singularity,” Oliver says, “I built this for a very specific purpose, which is to see if I could keep a ball of fire static in the middle.”
And he can. The sculpture looks simple: It’s a hoop of copper tubing with nozzles pointed inward toward the center. Propane feeds into it through two separate intakes. After some adjustment, he gets it dialed in.
A blue-white, blazingly hot ball of fire pulsates in the middle of the hoop. Everything else in the room fades into darkness, as we stare into the ever-changing heart of a naked, unchained furnace of flame.
The ball of fire is just a couple feet from our unprotected flesh, warming our faces like a miniature sun. Every time Oliver tweaks the dials, alarming yellow jets of fire bloom upward from the fireball. Somehow the warehouse doesn’t burn down.
He’s not above using fire to startle bystanders. At one recent gathering, Oliver says, he hooked up a propane jet to the bottom of a barbecue where he was cooking hamburgers. Whenever a customer asked for a toasted bun, Oliver would place it over the jet’s nozzle and stomp a foot pedal, triggering the flow of propane. A huge ball of flame would burst out of the grill with a gut-shaking WHOMP! and the bun, now charred to blackness, would go tumbling end over end into the air.
Oliver was also involved in a pilot for a Discovery Channel show called Weaponizers. He and three other builders created fully armed, full-sized, remote-controlled automobiles, which they then pitted against one another in an apparently no-holds-barred desert battle. The first episode of Weaponizers features lots of gratuitous explosions. It’s awesome.
As if fire weren’t enough, one of Oliver’s current projects is an effort to mix flame and high voltage. He starts with two “Rubens’ Tubes,” long perforated pipes through which propane flows, turning into flames at each opening. The pipes are connected to an audio source, and once he dials in the propane flow just right, the flames move in sync with the sound waves, forming a kind of burning EQ meter.
When Oliver runs current through the pipes, it arcs from one to the other and also does something hard to describe to the flames: Their shape changes, they become more compact, and the flames on the top start burning down, toward the lower pipe, instead of going up as flames normally do. Seeing that, you might start to see how electrical fields could be used to put out fires, as Harvard researchers recently demonstrated.
You can get a glimpse of the effect in the video below.
It’s an experiment, Oliver says, but even he isn’t entirely sure what the ultimate outcome will be. Mostly it’s a chance to mess around with dangerous stuff and see if he can produce some cool effects. Getting the best effects, it turns out, takes a lot of messing around.
SAN FRANCISCO — Trust us. We’re not going to screw up Skype.
That was the message Microsoft delivered Tuesday, hours after formally announcing that it was buying the internet telephony pioneer for a staggering $8.5 billion — staggering because it’s more than the Redmond giant has ever paid for anything, and because Skype doesn’t exactly print money.
But in an early morning press conference, as Google strutted for its Android developers in another part of town, an increasingly mobile-minded Microsoft made the Skype acquisition seem like the most logical thing ever. And, it said, it has no intention of messing with the brand which has become a consumer favorite and synonymous with the disruption of the telephone business.
We know what we’re doing, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said on a noticeably small stage he shared with Skype CEO Tony Bates to explain why the merger of their two companies makes sense.
“We’re irrepressible,” said Ballmer. “This Skype acquisition is completely consistent with our ambitious, forward-looking, irrepressible nature. Microsoft and Skype will bring together hundreds of millions — or as Tony said, billions! — of consumers and empower them to connect in new and interesting ways. It’s core to our mission, and it’s core to our technology direction.”
Microsoft’s acquisition of the Luxembourg-based Skype will close this year, assuming it passes regulatory muster, the executives said.
Skype is the poster child for voice-over-internet-protocol — or VOIP — services, which allow customers to place telephone calls using the internet’s infrastructure instead of the phone company’s. Most people use Skype to place free calls to other Skype users. After its founding in 2003, eBay paid $3.1 billion for Skype in 2005, then sold the majority of it to an investment group in 2009 for $1.9 billion.
Skype is popular, especially among people who use its services to place international calls cheaply or for free. But it hasn’t exactly captialized on the social networking revolution and has faced carrier resistance in its efforts to create fully featured mobile clients. Meanwhile, Google acquired a competing service, Grand Central, for a reported $50 million in 2007, eventually launching it as Google Voice in 2009. Google recently struck a deal with Sprint, enabling Sprint customers to integrate their phone numbers with Google Voice.
Microsoft’s purchase of Skype is arguably as much about defense as offense. It denies Skype to, say, Facebook and Google, both of which were reported just days ago to be interested in in partnering with, and possibly buying it. As carriers de-emphasize what are becoming commoditized calling minutes in favor of pricier data bytes, Microsoft’s strategic alliance with Nokia also gives it huge reach in the distribution of Skype-integrated handsets.
However, that seems like a rich price tag for a company that only generated $860 million in revenue in the most recent year and $264 million in operating profit — yet no net profit at all. Microsoft is paying about $50 for each of Skype’s 170 million users, or about $1,000 for each of its 8 million paying customers.
Ballmer seemed optimistic about Skype’s ability to integrate into Microsoft’s current businesses, such as Windows Live Messenger and the corporate-oriented Lync. He said he expected to apply “classic” business metrics to evaluate the success or failure of the new Skype division.
Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that while Skype probably wouldn’t generate much revenue for Microsoft directly, it could be a valuable addition to other internet-based services, in which e-mail, voice and video are all becoming part of the same stream of data.
“Part of the bet that Microsoft is placing is that this technology helps them do a better job of delivering to that river of communications,” Golvin said.
For instance, Golvin suggested, the company could integrate Skype into Xbox and Xbox Live, which — with the addition of Kinect — have become more voice-centric products in the last year.
Both executives sought to reassure Skype customers who might be worried about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to support the multiplatform software, which is available for Windows, OS X and Linux PCs; Android, BlackBerry and iOS smartphones; and even televisions.
“We’re one of the few companies that has actually has a track record of doing this,” said Ballmer, pointing to the company’s Mac support over the years. “Fundamental to the value proposition of communications is being able to reach everybody, whether they happen to be on your devices or not.”
“The commitment from Microsoft to support multiplatform clients is absolutely critical,” Bates said, indicating that Skype got assurances from Microsoft that it would continue to support all of Skype’s platforms.
Finally, Ballmer indicated no intention to take on the carriers in an aggressive attempt to bring VOIP services into Windows Phone 7. Indeed, Ballmer said, “the partnership and collaboration that we have today [with carriers] is fundamental.”
Bates pointed to Skype’s track record of striking deals with carriers to offer Skype services as a differentiating feature.
In other words, expect Microsoft to try to sell Skype to carriers, not use it to bash them about the head with VOIP services that reduce their billable minutes.
A bathtub full of Devil Duckies at Archie McPhee's Seattle store.
SEATTLE — It’s hard to explain Archie McPhee.
Instead, let’s start with some of the things you can buy here:
Cthulhu water bottles. Bacon-flavored toothpaste. Devil duckies. Fire-spitting wind-up nuns. Band-Aids that look like bacon strips. Bacon-flavored gumballs. A plastic narwhal — complete with a penguin for it to impale. A yodeling plastic pickle. Bacon-flavored mints.
And, of course, there’s a bin full of rubber chickens.
The company, named after founder Mark Pahlow’s eccentric great uncle, has been shipping strange objects, offbeat toys and slightly off-color gifts from its Seattle headquarters since 1983.
Wired visited Archie McPhee‘s retail store, in Seattle’s earnestly funky Wallingford neighborhood. It’s like a warehouse full of carnival toys. If you’ve ever failed to throw a ping-pong ball into the right cup of water and received a strange, almost worthless finger puppet as a consolation prize, you might recognize it in one of the many bins here.
Before the internet and eBay, Archie McPhee was a precious source of bizarre gags from around the world. My future parents-in-law got the catalog and cackled while showing me such oddities as a telescoping fork (expands up to 2 feet!), rubber cockroaches, boxing plastic Godzillas and catapult guns that fling plastic bugs, giving me an early hint of the madness that I would someday marry into.
The McPhee catalog strikes a chord with a certain kind of person: children, or those with a particularly goofy sense of humor. If your sense of fun veers between silly and absurd, you’re a likely customer for McPhee’s brand of plastic fantastic humor.
Like most great works, Archie McPhee was born out of a desperate need.
“Having been born and raised in Ohio, I understand boredom in a profound way,” says Pahlow in his memoir,Who Would Buy This? (available for sale at Archie McPhee for $19.95).
To assuage the tedium of his childhood, he went into business, starting by selling illegal firecrackers to his friends. Later, he collected and resold stamps, cigar box labels, old toys and Korean rubber acupuncture figurines.
Pahlow bought up strange objects and odd lots on road trips through out-of-the-way Midwestern towns, then sold them at huge markeups to emporia in New York. Eventually he opened his own shop and started publishing a catalog, gradually adding products of his own design to the mix.
Now Archie McPhee sells hundreds of original products under its own brand.
The “secret,” if you can call it that, is simple.
Thanks to the miracle of inexpensive Asian manufacturing, any object, no matter how strange, can be mass-produced in plastic for pennies per unit. Design some ironic packaging, wait for it to get off the boat from China, sell for $8.95 and repeat.
What makes it all work is Pahlow’s unique sensibilities: One-third goofy humor, one-third self-aware irony, one-third crass commercialism, all salted with a strange sense of mission.
“I came to realize shopping existed to help make people less depressed,” Pahlow writes, “and I was determined to help them in this noble undertaking.”
Above: Archie McPhee created the Devil Duckie in 2000, and it quickly went on to become a nationwide cult hit, spawning dozens of variations. $8.95 for a sleeve of six.
Like multicore computer chips, Android smartphones, and Starbucks coffee, LCD TVs are getting cheaper—and bigger—all the time. Inevitably, your brother-in-law’s new 55-inch TV cost less than the 48-inch model you bought two years ago. Why? Science! See, flat-panel displays are made by machines that print arrays of circuits on sheets of glass and then slice those sheets into screens like high tech brownies. And since 1999, those machines have increased in size by 800 percent. Thus, the Law of Big Glass: The larger the glass printer, the cheaper—or bigger—the TV.
In 1993, the industry-standard tool for “printing” display circuitry, a TFT-LCD deposition machine, could work with glass no bigger than about 18 inches square. Today, they can handle sheets that are 11 feet on a side—the size of a garage door—and just a millimeter thick. A 20-inch flatscreen TV cost $1,200 in 1999; it costs just $84 today.
The law applies to organic LED displays, too—which is great, since they’re brighter and more energy-efficient than LCDs. OLED screens use a related manufacturing process, and right now they’re printed on 4 x 5-foot sheets. But the Law of Big Glass says 55-inch OLEDs will someday go for less than $1,000 at Costco. By then you’ll probably want a tiny, ridiculously expensive holodeck.
My phone is about as integrated into my life as my left temporal lobe. I’m not going running without it.
That’s why the H2O Audio Amphibx Fit Armband ($60) is a boon for technophile exercise-junkies like me. Sure, it’s ugly, and its large size dwarfs my skinny arms. But with my phone tucked inside, I can go running in rain, sleet, hail or any other ridiculous elements without fear of water damage. I can even go swimming with my Precious — something even Sméagol would envy.
Coupled with a pair of H2O Audio’s Surge 2G headphones ($50), which are also waterproof, I can listen to music anywhere I choose to run, splash or ride.
The Amphibx armband is essentially a sealed, clear plastic pouch attached to a beefy fabric-fastener strap. On the back there’s a double-latching hatch with a gasket. Pop your phone inside, clip the latches down and the gasket seals all water out. It also seals air inside, so your phone gets to ride along with a bubble of air, which helps it float should it become detached.
You can still work your phone’s controls and use its touchscreen through the pouch, although it’s a bit more awkward than before.
To use headphones, you connect the armband’s internal plug to your device before sealing it inside, then close up the pouch. Afterward, you can plug your earbuds or headphones (regular or waterproof) into the armband’s external headphone port, making an electrical connection without compromising the waterproofing.
I tested the Amphibx armband and Surge 2G headphones in a variety of conditions, from jogging on a hot and sweaty California afternoon to running through chilly, blowing Seattle rain. I took it in the shower and on 1-mile pool lap swims. I used it with an iPhone 4 as well as a Motorola Defy. Neither phone ever saw a drop of water, except for the random few drops that fell on them as I was reopening the case after a workout.
The case is big enough to hold the well-endowed HTC Evo, although it’s a bit of a squeeze once you connect the internal headphone plug. You can also can fit a credit card or a $20 bill inside along with the phone.
The Surge 2G headphones performed just fine while running, with decent sound and a rugged design that made them relatively easy to deal with while exercising. However, I was not able to get the headphones to stay in while swimming. It might be that my ears are unusually-shaped, but they kept floating out in the water, even when I’d jammed them well inside my outer ear. Switching to different tips (several sizes are included) didn’t help much.
Still, for running and other sport activities in wet environments short of total immersion, the H2O Audio combination works well. Whether you just want to take music with you, can’t stand being out of touch or are using your phone to track your workouts, these two are a pricey but practical pair of accessories.
WIRED Waterproof to 12 feet: Good enough for surfing! Wide fabric-fastener strap keeps armband on even when severely buffeted. Easy to adjust.
TIRED Plastic sticks to touchscreens, making removal slow. Harder to work touchscreen controls through the plastic. Plastic adds glare in bright sunlight. Size will make your arms look even skinnier, you nerd.