RANDOM FRACTAL PATHWAYS generated in a computer simulation by Oded Schramm and Scott Sheffield of the theory group at Microsoft Research reveal a type of pattern that may be useful in the modeling of quantum field theory or the contours of a crystal surface. This basic research bears no direct relation to any Microsoft product. Image: MICROSOFT RESEARCH
Thousands of Microsoft product developers--a sea of tieless shirts, dress pants and jeans--have descended on a nondescript building on the company's main campus in Redmond, Wash., one drizzly day in early March. Inside, rows of booths display the latest intellectual output from many of the 700 scientists who make up the software maker's research division. At one booth, there is a microphone that eliminates background noise. At another is software that converts a video image of a face into a graphic animation. Moving along, the visitor comes across a digital camera worn on the body of an exhibitor that snaps a frame every time the camera senses a change in temperature or light, creating a comprehensive record of a person's entire waking life. The annual event, called TechFest, is a means of ensuring that product developers stay aware of what the research side is doing.
The displays demonstrate a mix of ingenuity and cuteness typical of academic computer science departments. The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology immediately comes to mind. More startling than the displays themselves are some of the individuals walking the floor at the exhibition. Among them are engineers, mathematicians and programmers, some of whose ponytails are now graying, who would be shoo-ins for a Computer Science Hall of Fame. Meet C. Gordon Bell, an inventor of the minicomputer. Or James Kajiya, creator of some of the key mathematics underlying computer graphics rendering and winner of an Academy Award for technical achievement. Then there is James Gray, a giant in databases. These legendary figures have not come for a casual visit. During the past 13 years, using its enormous cash stockpiles, Microsoft has hired scores of these techno-wizards from universities and competitors to create one of the largest concentrations of talent the field has ever seen.
This article was originally published with the title A Confederacy of Smarts.