Microsoft has given a special insight to The Boston Globe into the goings on at one of its special freeform workspaces. The centres, which Microsoft calls ‘The Garage’, offer a place for employees and others to test ideas and learn new techniques with the aid of technology.
The New England Research and Development Centre (or NERD Centre for short) in Cambridge, Massachusetts is the latest of the company’s facilities to include a Garage, which represent part of a drive to transform Microsoft’s image under CEO Satya Nadella. It is the seventh Garage Microsoft has opened, joining others in Vancouver, Hyderabad, Beijing, and other notable capital cities around the world.
Cambridge Garage manager Linda Thackeray, who is a 20-year veteran of Microsoft, pointed out many of the design features of the daylight-filled facility. Thackeray noted her favourite tool in the Garage is a low-tech badge maker. She commented the simple gadget is one of the most used in the building, acting as a gateway to try out more complex machines. She said of the badge press:
“It’s, like, nonthreatening. Ideally, we’ll have a progression of learning. Maybe the next time you come in, you’ll solder a blinky light onto a circuit board.”
Moving on, one of the main attractions at the Garage is its virtual reality room. Staff can go to the space and relax with a gaming session on a Microsoft HoloLens kit, or even a competitor’s device such as the Facebook Oculus. Engineers with more serious tasks at hand can use the headsets to test software.
A key part of each Garage is its intern program, which is offered to talented students who work in groups at the facility to create a prototype product. The teams work in a large open space designed with social interaction in mind. The space’s walls are lined with whiteboards for interns to scribble down their fledgling ideas.
Microsoft touts the Garage as a ‘portal to hack culture’. The company frequently runs Hackathon events for its own staff to contribute new projects to its senior leadership. Many of the most successful projects to come out of the Garage have been focused on health care or tools to get more out of the Office 365 productivity suite. These include a virtual reality tool for viewing cancerous tumours and a script for translating formulas in localised versions of Excel.
Other more whimsical but useful projects leverage the company’s prowess in image recognition and artificial intelligence, including an iPhone app called What Dog able to suggest which breed a canine might belong to, and a tool for automatically identifying and indexing screenshots of a computer’s desktop. The same technology is being tested in a Garage research endeavour called Road Runner, which aims to ‘train’ driverless cars.
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