Behind vision “2019”: interview with Ian Sands, Microsoft Office Labs Director of Envisioning

Ian Sands

Microsoft Office Labs‘ awe-inspiring “2019” productivity vision video debuted a couple weeks ago introduces a lot of cool technology concepts but raises if not just as many question. Seeking to get some of those questions answered, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with someone who knows these concepts better than anyone else, Ian Sands, the Director of Envisioning at Office Labs. Here’s what he had to say.

Hi Ian. Your title, “Director of envisioning”, is not a title you see very often if at all. What does your job involve?

Hi Long. Thanks for your interest in our work!

I haven’t thought about it much but I suppose my title isn’t all that common. For the most part it just describes what I do. As the director of envisioning, my job is to work with technical leaders across the company to define and illustrate Microsoft’s 10-year productivity vision. Beyond producing the videos you’ve seen, I also oversee the Center for Information Work.

A lot of the work that is coming out of Office Labs is available today as real, downloadable and practical software applications, yet in stark contrast this group also produces these vision videos which are said to be 10 years into the future. How much is Office Labs focused on “today” and “a decade away”?

Focusing on this spectrum of near and long-term concepts is core to our strategy. Most of the downloadable projects are developed with the Office product teams to test hypotheses and gain user feedback so that we can make informed decisions about evolving our products in the future. Some of the other concept tests that users can download and try are part of the effort to help grass-roots innovators at Microsoft participate in the process. We also look to incubate new ideas that lie outside our current product offerings. These efforts look a bit further down the road to explore areas outside of our existing products.

At the other end of the spectrum, our long-term vision initiative helps us set our compass, informing the breadth of our efforts through the development of farther reaching ideas and research. In essence, the bulk of Office Labs work is about looking forward.

2019_1To put it modestly, these vision videos are mindblowing. I’ve been told you are “the guy behind the videos”, what is your role in making these videos?

Wow. That’s a huge compliment… Thanks! Of course it’s not just me; I am supported by a great team that helps make it all happen. We do everything from the research and customer analysis to the scenario development and storyboarding, to the software/hardware designs and motion studies. The diversity of roles is the key; we have designers, business strategists, developers, researchers, and program managers – all helping to make it happen. The best part of my job, besides leading the effort, is co-directing the filming of the videos themselves.

What comes first when you make these vision videos, a particular scenario in which you envision how technology can evolve, or a handful of next-generation technology ideas from which you try to wrap a story around?

It’s closer to the former. Before we get to scenarios, we focus on gaining a thorough understanding of where our customers and end users are evolving. By understanding their key needs, we can begin to combine those with bigger shifts and changes… things like the growing divide in the ages of the workforce, environmental trends, growing impact of consumer tech in the workplace, etc.

We also spend a lot of time tracking technology trends, working with our research departments and developing concepts for how we can marry key customer/user opportunities with emerging technologies. From there we begin to tell the story and stitch the scenarios together.

The outcome is a host of things like videos, demos, prototypes (e.g. TouchWall), and physical installations that our customers can get hands-on exposure to our work.

Many of the conceptual technologies shown appear inspired by existing products or ideas. Do product groups inside Microsoft or industry leaders provide input when refining these concepts or are they purely speculative?

Yes, that input is the key to success; this vision is grounded in real things we are working on across Microsoft. Incorporating learning from across the industry is also critical. We work closely with our product teams, Microsoft Research and technical leaders throughout the company to ensure the vision is plausible and reflective of things we are working towards. Looking 10 years out does require some speculation and a little creative license to keep things inspiring (and to challenge thinking) but in the end, we want to be true to the sorts of things we could see in that timeframe.

I’ve compared these vision videos to blockbuster science-fiction films, is that a fair comparison from the perspective of film production?

From the perspective of film production that is a great compliment and a decent comparison. Like many films that feature forward looking technology concepts, we’ve found that we can use many of the same post-production methods used in the film industry to help tell our stories in a rich and inspiring way.

The comparison quickly breaks down when we look at budget. Ours is quite tiny compared to your average sci-fi blockbuster. We also need to maintain the grounding and don’t quite have the creative freedom of a sci-fi director. I often times think it would be a lot of fun to do that vision of the future someday… you know, the 30+ year timeframe, where the only constraint is your imagination.

How many people and companies are involved? Is the production entirely in-house?

As mentioned earlier, we involve a decent sized virtual team throughout our process but the vast majority of the work is done by my team of ten people (1-2 fulltime on video). We do the bulk of the work in-house but also work with a really talented group of external folks for the live-action, compositing and post-production.

How long does each of these videos take to produce from conceptualization to the final cut?

Generally it takes about 6 months from the point we are writing scenarios to the point we have the final cut of the video. That being said, the video is just one of the outputs of our broader exercise to develop the vision, so it can be a little difficult to separate from the full package of things we are doing concurrently to ensure a cohesive vision.

2019_2Most if not all of the technology shown in these videos are not practical or technically possible today. In all of the concept videos you’ve produced, is there anything which has been a real piece of hardware or software, or is everything an effect in post-production?

In some of our earlier videos like Retail, and Banking we showed a number of technologies and devices that were real, new-to-market stuff or working prototypes. In our more recent work we’ve moved to doing more things in post production. We have to be cognizant that using the real research projects, devices, etc. that we have today won’t always help portray an inspiring vision for where they might be a decade from now.

By doing more things in post production we are able to bring our concepts to life in a way that ensures consistency, allowing us to try things that aren’t quite possible with the current state-of-the-art technology today. In many cases we do have prototypes of these technologies and do build real code to prove out the viability of the concepts we are depicting (TouchWall, again, is an example of that). If you look closely (and watch Stephen Elop’s speech to see some of the support tech) you’ll see how many of these concepts are in development.

In the spirit of making these videos appear real, even a piece of newspaper in the “2019” video appears to contain an abundance of “news articles” on the frontpage. How elaborate are these assets created? Do you just build what is necessary for the scene or a complete ‘system’?

Because my teams’ effort is broader than just producing the videos, we generally have designed (and in some cases developed) much more of the software scenarios and concepts than you see in the videos. Not much of anything is just built for a scene… it’s definitely about developing a connected system of well-thought out concepts.

People play a big role in these vision videos, interacting with the technology you’ve envisioned. Assuming most see nothing more than a green wall, a blank screen or a white piece of paper, how do you explain the technologies to them who ironically end up explaining it to the audience?

This is probably one of the most difficult parts of filming the videos. When you are shooting on location, you have limited time with the talent, and things are moving very quickly. As a co-director in each of these videos, one of the critical roles I play is to help the actors understand what they are doing, how to mime the exact motions and locations, and then work with them to make the audience “believe.” Prior to shooting we have designed the screens, mapped out the interactions, and the exact flow the actors will be following. It really gets stressful when we end up editing the designs on set. Once in a while, we’ll find later that we missed a click or missed our locations or something like that. It makes for even more fun in post-production.

2019_3Who is the real audience for these vision videos? The general public? Microsoft product groups? The wider technology industry? Where do these ideas go – what role does Office Labs play?

We’ve found that all these audiences are important and we look to target each one with the work in different ways. The mission of my team has changed a bit in the last year or so. Early on, the goal was to help our customers better understand the potential of Microsoft’s R&D efforts in the context of their business rather than in some generic way.

As we’ve broadened our initiative, we’ve begun to put more emphasis on bringing the learning and feedback into our product groups to affect change in more concrete ways moving forward. To that end, the internal audience is one of our most important. If we can help our product groups create visions for where they want to go and give them materials to enrich conversations and roadmap planning efforts, then our work will pay off. Ideally you’ll begin seeing the realization of many of these ideas in the coming years. Office Labs will play a critical role in helping our product groups to investigate the opportunities and try them out.

If you were to pick a single technology concept as your favourite out of all the vision videos, what would it be and why?

Hmmm… that’s like asking me who my favorite child is. I love them all! In general, I think there are so many exciting technologies that will be impacting our lives over the coming years. Everything from natural user interfaces, to ever-broadening social and communications tools, to data visualizations and contextual business intelligence. Lots of good stuff on the horizon…

Finally, the first thought most people have after watching your videos is “wow”, followed by a sign of doubt and the question “is this really going to happen”, which is also the question I want to ask you.

This is a great question and one we need to always be asking ourselves and the industry as a whole. Of course I have no pre-conceived notion that the future will unfold exactly as we’ve envisioned. Of course things will change and evolve along the path. The work is not intended as a promise but as a hypothesis… a direction to set the compass by and inspire dialogue.

I think much of this could happen, many things like this will happen, and certain things won’t happen. The bigger question is when, where and from whom will concepts like these begin to emerge. We have many teams across Microsoft taking this vision to heart and some are beginning to incorporate the thinking and concepts into their strategies… so yeah, it is the hope of many that through partnership and collaboration we can play a part in making this happen

Update: Nothing short of good timing, Microsoft’s own Channel9 team has a video interview with Ian Sands published. So if you’re more of a moving pictures person, you can check out their interview here.

8 insightful thoughts

  1. Two things:
    Great interview. Love the content and the way the process of creating various future lanes are explored. Creating possiblities in light of what’s nearly possible, not jsut what’s impossible. The limited budget in producing things like this brings more creative possibilities too. Very neat.

    #2: in term of the formatting of the transcript: it would be great if “ISS” and “IS” were appended to each section where that speaker begins speaking. It would make it easier to follow the voice, and offer a means to better respond to the answers or the questions.

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