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Originally published Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft's Mundie gives campuses peek at tech's future

On a tour of five U.S. universities this week, Microsoft's top strategist, Craig Mundie, is doing what he does best: demonstrating the future.

Seattle Times technology reporter

On a tour of five U.S. universities this week, Microsoft's top strategist, Craig Mundie, is doing what he does best: demonstrating the future.

The veteran executive works closely with a team of engineers and futurists to create conceptual demonstrations meant to excite people about technology that's just over the horizon. It's an early look at what Microsoft sees as possible.

This role as Microsoft chief inspiration officer used to belong to Chairman Bill Gates, who transitioned from full-time involvement with the company July 1 to focus on philanthropy.

Gates regularly toured U.S. universities, while Mundie, long one of the company's top global ambassadors, visited schools in India, China and elsewhere around the world. Mundie's U.S. campus tour is another responsibility he has assumed as one of two executives filling Gates' role.

For his audience of students and professors, Mundie focused on how technology could improve education in the next five to 10 years.

In one scenario, a student's entire educational history can be accessed from an Internet-connected Tablet PC. Scroll back in time to see notes from high-school biology, scroll forward to a present-day anatomy curriculum.

The conceptual software also looks ahead, charting upcoming assignments and tests.

The tablet replaces the textbook — in this example, the famous "Gray's Anatomy" — giving students access to three-dimensional models of the human body that can be rotated, zoomed in on and explored system by system.

Buttons on the screen open dialogues with additional information from textbooks, videos, notes from peers and professors and other sources, all color-coded by their relevance to the subject at hand and the student's level and learning style.

That will be useful as the information deluge continues and the challenge becomes sorting it, Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, said in an interview Monday from New York.

"Computers will probably be able to do a lot more for us in the future than they do today," he said.

"... That demo was intended to make people think, 'Well, what if your computer could analyze all these things that you might be interested in, categorize them and then present them to you so you could pick the ones that were likely to be the most useful.' "

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Forward-looking technology demonstrations have long been part of Mundie's purview in his 16 years at the company.

"To some extent, I'd say, my gift is to be able to look at all these complex technologies and synthesize, at least in my own view, interesting ways that they will be used or could emerge," he said.

Mundie is also comfortable translating that vision into language non-techies can understand.

He has a strategic prototyping team that creates complex demos such as the Microsoft Home, a futuristic dwelling with kitchen counters that can sense different ingredients and offer recipe suggestions.

These physical representations of future technology serve as a bridge between his vision and his audience, Mundie said.

"But the devil is in the details," he said. "You want to suspend disbelief for some short period of time and feel what it might be like in the future."

Jonathan Cluts, a member of the prototyping team, said Mundie is hands-on when it comes to building the demonstrations. He engages with the team at many different levels, from the broad contours of the story a demonstration tells to how an individual feature of the interaction design behaves.

Mundie began his tour this week at Princeton and will travel to New York University, University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley and San Diego.

While on campuses, Mundie listens to professors in disciplines from psychology to physics and reviews student projects.

He doesn't do structured recruiting, though there are serendipitous connections made between university researchers and Microsoft Research, which he oversees. And spreading the Microsoft word has benefits.

"I think by going on these tours it gives the students some direct exposure to the breadth of the work that Microsoft does that they might not otherwise encounter," Mundie said.

The economic crisis has little bearing on Microsoft's investment in research or on the company's college recruiting.

"We may slow down the overall company's growth in some way just to deal with the uncertainty that's created in the current economic climate," Mundie said, "but notably I don't think that will alter either our college-recruiting program this year and won't make anything other than a pro rata difference in what we would do in research."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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