A video that Microsoft posted last week under a mind-numbingly dull title has been sparking conversation since then.
The most striking thing about it may be how spotless everything appears, as if we're looking at a techie version of the photo spreads in those glossy design magazines. That polished perfection has led people to mock the whole production as "inane and completely lifeless" or "imaginary futuristic ."
Some details appear implausible on a practical level: I'd love to know how business travelers will ever be able to stage an international trip with only one rolling carry-on.
But a decent chunk of the technology on display in the video might not be so far off.
The frequent use of voice input, for instance, should be familiar to anybody using a modern smart phone… even if the one most heralded today for its speech control isn't from Microsoft. (Having your gadgets hear and transcribe you perfectly, however, remains an unlikely experience today.)
The tables and counters that double as multi-touch screens look like more affordable and magically fingerprint-proof versions of the Surface kiosks Microsoft debuted in 2007, just before the iPhone's arrival.
The displays that materialize on windows and walls, then respond when users point to buttons or links, match up with the "Omnitouch" projector-and-camera system that Microsoft Research fellow Chris Harrison has been working on.
When world traveler Ayla Kol gestures with her hands to control some future version of Microsoft Office, she's obviously employing a more compact descendant of the Kinect game-control system that revolutionized Xbox gaming after debuting last year.
And the transparent, handheld display held by the hotel employee waiting for her appears to be a miniaturized version of a display Microsoft showed off in 2009.
The 3D holograms that float in front of displays, even the simple tablet used by Kol's daughter Shannon back home, exist in some labs today; Microsoft's have been working on ways to integrate Kinect-style gesture controls.
The networked fridge that tracks its own contents is an old standby in Microsoft's tech prophecies; I saw one when I toured the house-of-the-future exhibit on its Redmond, Wash., campus in 2004. It works by reading the RFID tags embedded in everything at the supermarket. (But as a regular farmer's-market customer and occasionally successful gardener, I trust there will be room in the future for non-chipped produce.)
But Microsoft's display of polished technological wizard has me completely puzzled about two key aspects.
One is the cost of all the bandwidth used. I hate to think about how much Kol's nameless employer is paying for her to be online so frequently in Johannesburg.
The other is what's powering all this stuff. I've watched the video three times, and I've yet to see a single battery icon or gauge in any of the wireless devices people use. I can only hope that in five to 10 years, mobile gadgets will run for so long on a charge that it won't be worth showing their batteries' status.
But I suspect that the future will be a lot less tidy.
Credit: Images via Microsoft video