Asta Roseway wants to rethink touch-based computing. Her idea starts with temporary tattoos. The way it would work is that you stick a temporary tattoo somewhere on your body.
The tattoo, a gold leaf that can come in any shape or artistic pattern, uses a mix of electrical currents and Bluetooth connections to become almost anything, from a light switch to a musical instrument.
“Think of the next generation of bands or musicians, or even dancers who want to play music during a performance,” she said as I touched the keyboard keys on a mannequin arm and heard a piano play from a neighboring speaker.
But she sees so much more potential. She talks about everything from controlling lighting to new types of medical sensors that follow your vital functions. “We can send signals everywhere,” she said.
Roseway, a leading research designer who had been with Microsoft for two decades, worked with a team she had hired through Microsoft to work with her during a three-day hackathon.
The event, which has been held in the company for five years, is the brainchild of Satya Nadella, who became the CEO of the tech giant in 2014. It is not only an opportunity for people to make useful technology, but there is plenty of it. It is also part of his plan to change the way employees think about building products at the world’s largest software builder. During an unusually warm day at the end of July, Roseway and her team work at long tables covered with electronics, computers and snacks in one of the two 15,585 square meters of tents set up for the meetup.
The group next to her is working on tools to help people with poor eyesight play video games. Other teams hack tools together to help homeless shelters, plan cities and provinces and respond to rising needs. “This opens the door,” said Roseway. “This is why we are here.” The idea of a hackathon is incredibly simple: take the hundreds of ideas that employees would otherwise scribble on a napkin or file – or give it up before they even started – and give them a chance to turn those ideas into something more. It is just like Shark Tank, but for ideas. That’s why hackathons are now so popular that they have become a standard procedure within the technical industry and beyond. Facebook has hackathons, just like Google. NASA has a hackathon. CNET also organizes one every year. Microsoft says it is organizing the world’s largest private annual hackathon during One Week, an annual meeting made by Nadella to get everyone on the same page and inform their mindset in the coming year.
The hackathon is only part of the week: there is a science scholarship, a non-profit scholarship, and question and answer sessions with Microsoft leadership. It is still a long way from the famous organization chart that a cartoonist signed in 2011 and portrayed Microsoft’s divisions as belligerent gangs, each aiming guns at each other. Nadella has invited us to view the hackathon for ourselves as part of the cultural changes he has made since the takeover.
More than 23,500 employees worldwide in 46 different locations (including the company’s headquarters in Redmond) participated this year and worked on thousands of projects. It’s not just an opportunity to promote team collaboration, although every group we saw had members from the engineering, finance, operations, and consumer departments of the company.
When we talk about our mission to strengthen every person and every organization on earth to achieve more, it cannot simply be a series of words. It must be the essence of who we are in all the decisions we make, in the products we make and how we show up with our customers, “Nadella said in an interview after touring the two hackathon in July. “It must, in a way, capture the essence of who we are in all our decisions, in the products we make and how we appear to our customers.”
A hackathon project finds its way to the CEO, while there are prize winners in different categories, including one that focuses on accessibility. The list of successful projects includes the Xbox Adaptive Controller from Microsoft, a $ 99 device that will be launched this year and with which gamers with disabilities can help play on the Xbox game console and Windows PCs. Technology has been invented to make dyslexics easier to read, which has since been integrated into much of Microsoft’s software. These educational tools have shown amazing results: a boy, Nadella wrote in his book Hit Refresh in 2017, went from six words per minute to 27 words per minute in a few weeks.
When we talk about our mission to enable every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, it cannot simply be a series of words.
Another hackathon team has developed technology that allows people to control a wheelchair with their gaze. It has been transformed into a whole range of functions in Microsoft Windows software that feeds hundreds of millions of PCs, including which you can log on to your computer by just watching it.
“We are in a time, in 2018, when technology is so widespread in our lives, in our economies, in our societies,” Nadella says. “I think the time has come, frankly, that we really have the dialogue and the question to be asked, but also answers to what the real benefits of technology are that are being spread fairly?”
Back in the tent, one team builds technology to help people use their Xbox game console to guide them through various types of therapy, such as recovering from sports injuries.
“For parents who might have to take their children back and forth for a visit, they don’t really do a lot of exercises at home, and so they don’t get better,” says Megan Melloy, who normally works on the Microsoft operational team but who helps this project to lead.
Her team wondered if Microsoft’s Xbox could help by offering app developers an easier way to make therapeutic balls and gloves, as well as games to encourage people to do exercises at home. The Xbox is already a platform for games and controllers; Why not anymore?
Roseway showed Nadella demonstrations of her gold leaf tattoos painted on mannequin sections. The excitement she sees in Microsoft hackathons is the best example of how the company is changing. She adds that collaborative projects such as her tattoos were not even discussed a few years ago.
“This feels like, together we are building more creativity,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”