Two things are said on nearly every video conference meeting: “Can you see my screen?” and “Can you move closer to the microphone?”
Tele-meetings–especially ones with more than five people–are clunky at best and headache-inducing at worst. In a typical scenario, 10 people are gathered in a room in the home office and seven or eight souls traveling or working at home have to call in, or Skype in from their laptops. Some of them keep the mic on mute and shut off the camera, making them a purely passive participant. Since the remote people often can’t see the faces of the other participants, they have no idea when it might be their turn to speak. When they break in to the discussion, it sounds like this: “Hi hey hi hey hello? Hello? It’s Ed in Phoenix, can you hear me?” And they can’t see the body language of the people on the other end, so they have no idea if their comments are eliciting nods, shrugs, or blank stares.
It’s a miserable experience, one that many companies have tried to solve over the years to no avail. Now, Microsoft thinks it may have the answer—with a new technology that enhances collaboration, rather than put up barriers to it.
Two meeting participants–one of them virtual–use HoloLens to examine a 3D blueprint of a building. [Photo: Mark Sullivan]Microsoft demonstrated its new meeting technology in a mocked-up conference room set during one of the keynotes at its Ignite conference Monday in Orlando. (Until a last-minute change, the demo was initially supposed to take place during CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote.) I was allowed in to one of Microsoft’s labs to watch one of the rehearsals for the presentation.
Some of the technology I saw is now generally available, some of it will be released later this year, and some of it is still very much in the experimental stage. The meeting technology pulls in the work of many of Microsoft’s groups, including Office 365, Teams, Bing, Cognitive Services (AI), and even HoloLens.
Before the meeting
Good meetings get the right people talking about the right things at the right times. Microsoft believes that process begins long before the meeting itself.
Microsoft’s idea is that every meeting should be represented by a place in the cloud where all relevant information about both the subject of the meeting and the people involved can be assembled. It’s a more advanced and resource-rich version of the old calendar event. This “meeting object” is used for communication and collaboration before, during, and after the meeting, Microsoft CVP Brian MacDonald told me. Before the meeting, the Microsoft AI might add or suggest logistical information, information about the participants, and relevant files and background information. New files might be added during the meeting, like collaboration notes and a real-time transcript of the discussion. Post-meeting notes like action items can be added, along with follow-up notes and communications.
Conversations within Microsoft’s Teams app can be translated in real time. [Image: courtesy of Microsoft]The meeting object often originates from within Microsoft Teams, the company’s Slack-like communications and collaboration environment. Teams has been available for about two years and, Microsoft says, is used by 329,000 organizations globally, including 87 of the Fortune 100.
Microsoft’s MacDonald, who originally proposed the Teams idea to CEO Satya Nadella and now leads the Teams group, told me to think of Teams as the center hub of all the apps and services within Microsoft 365 (which includes all desktop and cloud-based versions of Word, Excel, Edge, and many others).
“Anytime we talk about meetings, most of that will show up on Teams,” MacDonald said.
Meetings can originate from Teams in a couple of different ways. If a few people are discussing an issue in a Teams channel, there’s always a button nearby to escalate the conversation to a live video chat. There’s another button in the chat window that initiates a formal meeting and starts a meeting object that begins attracting data relevant to the meeting.
In the center of the demo’s mocked-up conference room is a mysterious cone-shaped object with a fish-eye lens at its tip. Actually, this is a prototype device that isn’t on the market yet. But its job is to watch and listen to the people sitting around the table. At the start of the demo, you see a screen on the large monitor at the front of the room with a strip at the top showing the 360-degree view from the fish-eye lens, with name labels next to all four people at the table.
Below that, in a left pane you see the transcript of the meeting being formed in real time by the camera and some natural language AI. The cone-shaped device uses both sight and sound to identify the faces and voices of the people sitting around the table, so it knows who’s talking at any time (even when people are talking at the same time). The system could also translate the words it heard into another language. In the right pane on the screen was a space reserved for “insights and notes” that could be created by anybody in the meeting.
The screen was used to display lots of things. Anybody in the meeting could project the screen of their laptop (Surfaces all around) onto the display. At one point a Cortana assistant bot was called up to help arrange a future meeting.
That stuff was mostly to express Microsoft’s vision for meetings. It’s not stuff you can buy for your company today. But the demo also showed some things that are ready for prime time.
To get the right people talking about the right things during meetings, search is pretty important. You need to be able to grab details about invitees, logistical information, relevant documents, and contextual information like previous discussions that have taken place on the subject of the meeting. This information usually comes from places on the open web, and from digital assets behind the company’s firewall.
So Microsoft has been working to extend the reach of its search engine to the web for more general and public information (via Bing), into LinkedIn for professional information about people inside and outside the company, and into private company information.
A meeting attendee, if logged in with a Office 365 account, might look up someone who will also be present, to understand who they’ll be talking to. A search within Microsoft 365 can find the person’s office location, an org chart, files the person has shared publicly, or a LinkedIn post they wrote. A Conversations view shows the discussions the person has been having in Microsoft’s Yammer chat app and in Teams.
Microsoft has put the search box everywhere, with searches suggested by AI. [Image: courtesy of Microsoft]The search engine can now also return results from within third-party apps the company may use, like SAP or Adobe.
At one point in the demo, one of the attendees suddenly wondered if he could take the wife and kids with him on the annual sales getaway. He typed, “Can I take my wife and kids along with me on this business vacation?” into a search box at the top of the Powerpoint screen he happened to be working in (Microsoft has now put the search box at the top of all its productivity apps). The man got back a mix of links to work-related and non-work-related content. Across the the top of the screen he saw four cards include bookmarks (to company docs), groups (workgroups), files, and relevant company intranet sites. Those links took care of the company policy part of the query. Below them, Bing returned links to relevant supplemental information from the open web–such as information on locations, flights, and hotels, for example.
“Using AI from the Bing consumer search engine, we can deliver search results that are more personalized, relevant, and consumerized,” said Naomi Moneypenny, product marketing manager for Teams and Skype.
Building the company brain
The AI underneath Microsoft 365 is always learning from the “signals” it receives from the apps that a client uses. All those signals–which could mean the way a company plans meetings, shares documents, or secures strategy documents–go into a graph, which can be thought of as the company’s brain, Microsoft says. The AI (borrowed from Bing) constantly draws upon information from the graph to learn, analyze, and make recommendations based on the work habits of the company. When a user is organizing a meeting, she might see search results that are informed, in part, by meeting organization habits detected in the past. If, for example, a meeting of a certain set of people usually has taken place in a certain conference room, the AI might suggest that location for future meetings of the same people.
“Microsoft Graph is really the way we learn about the way organizations are using content, and how they meet, and how the collaborate,” Moneypenny said. “We can learn their everyday work patterns.”
Microsoft says it’ll be rolling out the expanded search to Microsoft 365 apps, Bing.com, Office.com, and the SharePoint mobile app. And it will start showing up in Microsoft Edge, Windows, and Office in the future.
Video meetings get smart
Microsoft has added a new feature to video meetings that allows participants to blur out the background of their location. This can be used to make sure other participants can’t see that the user is linking in from a Starbucks or that a cat or baby is in the room. An unbusinesslike or unpredictable background can be a deterrent for people to keep their camera on during a meeting, which can shut the user off somewhat from full participation in the discussion.
Blurring a background is pretty easy for a still image. Background blur involves some fairly serious artificial intelligence, points out Lori Wright, general manager of Microsoft 365 teamwork and collaboration tools. “AI is letting us know what’s your face and what isn’t,” Wright explains. “And the AI has to do it every time you move.”
Microsoft product marketing manager Raanah Amjadi using background blur. [Photo: Mark Sullivan]One person in the demo meeting showed how Microsoft has added a meeting recording feature that lets users play back recorded meetings content anytime, including on a mobile. The recordings include the transcript (or translation) of the meeting, which include time codes so that you can click on a certain sentence and go right to that part of the video. And you can search for words or topics within the meeting, like your own name, or the name of a client.
“This is my Netflix binging of my work life,” says Raanah Amjadi, product marketing manager for Teams and Skype.
Later this year, Microsoft 365 users will be able to prepare and launch live streaming events from within Teams, Microsoft Stream, or the Yammer chat app. This is a great way for management and others to reach out to far-flung workforces. People in different time zones can use the Stream mobile app (iOS and Android) to replay the event, even when offline.
A new Surface Hub
At one point in the demo, two of the team members switched over to the new Surface Hub 2 digital whiteboard to work on a project together. The two were able to log into the device by touching a fingerprint reader on the bottom edge of the screen. Since the Hub then had both user’s account credentials, they were both able to bring up one of their own documents on the same screen. They were also able to move content back and forth from one user’s document to another. So, for example, User B might pull a statistic into their Powerpoint presentation from User A’s Word or Excel doc. Microsoft says it’ll release the Surface Hub 2 in the second quarter of 2019.
The life cycle of a meeting
Some of us dread meetings because they eat up time during the day. But they’re still important; they’re where decisions get made. They’re where action items get created and assigned, and where people are motivated to carry them out.
Most good meetings come down to the organizer preparing well for the meeting, says Moneypenny. “If I’m a great meeting organizer, and I take the time to schedule the right attendees, and if I’ve gotten all prior meeting notes, and I’ve made sure everyone has the right information, those are all good things.”
During the meeting, Moneypenny says, the organizer has to make sure everyone can hear, that there are no translation or communication barriers, and that the right action items are being captured. After the meeting they have to make sure the action items get distributed.
“Those are all things we require humans to do today, so there’s a lot of variation in how things are done,” Moneypenny said, “because I’m depending on how and when a human does it.” Microsoft wants to eventually have intelligent bots take over much of the work of meeting planning. “Artificial intelligence can come in and remove that variation and do those tasks for us,” she says.
Some of the meeting-related pain points Microsoft addressing seem pretty basic. But the company is interested in moving past addressing pain points and toward creating tools that make meetings more productive than most people have seen before. This may mean a situation where you put on a headset, and suddenly you’re dropped into a meeting that looks so real that you forget you’re in a virtual space.
That may be a far-away goal, but it shows how much better meetings can get. And because of its stronghold in the workplace, Microsoft is well-positioned to pursue it.
One of the most important moments in the history of industrial design occurred in 1990, when the kitchen brand OXO defied the traditional, knucklebleeding tools of culinary tradition, and released its Good Grips line. To this day, these tools are the best articulation of the potential of inclusive design: Developed for people with arthritis, Good Grips had thick rubbery handles that were also better tools for everyone to use.
The Swivel Peeler was the collection’s flagship product. Created by Smart Design, in conjunction with OXO International’s launch in 1990, it raised the bar for accessible consumer products, and changed the way kitchen tools were designed forever. It was inducted into the MoMA’s permanent collection in 1994. And nearly three decades after its release, it maintains 4.8 stars out of 5 on Amazon yet still costs under $10. How many consumer products are truly that lasting? It’s why the peeler won our inaugural Timeless Design award as part of Innovation by Design 2018.
Over the years, abridged versions of the peeler’s origin story have been shared in design museums and even business schools. But talking to Smart’s founder, Davin Stowell, I had no clue how rich the history was, including cameos from Monsanto, samurai sword makers, and retail magicians from another era. What follows is his lightly edited story–an insider’s account of the world’s most famous vegetable peeler.–Mark Wilson, senior writer, Fast Company
An Idea Borne Of Failure
The whole thing started with Sam Farber. He started a company called Copco, which made tea kettles and designed housewares. We connected with him in the early days of Smart, and designed a number of products for Copco. When he sold the company, he was retired for about six months. He came into my office, and was ranting on about how he absolutely needed to be making and selling things. He was a serial entrepreneur. He absolutely could not stand to be retired.
So he wanted to develop a product that he could go back into business with. At the time he had grown children and thought we could design something for kids. We came up with this idea of a toy that was basically crates, and you could add wheels to it, make into cars, bookcases, toyboxes. It was this giant-scale construction toy. He thought that was a fantastic thing to start a business around. We got patents on it, developed prototypes, started taking it around to buyers at stores who would take it.
The juvenile furniture buyers said it wasn’t furniture, it was a construction toy. So we go to the the toy buyers. They said it’s not a toy, it’s juvenile furniture. It was a great idea killed by retail, and it made him realize, he’d spent his life developing housewares products, he knew that well, and it’s what he should stick to.
That stuck in his mind during his annual vacation in Southern France. He and his wife Betsy spent a month cooking and enjoying the French countryside. One night I’m in my office, it’s 7:30 p.m., and I get a call from Sam. He’s in France, where its 1:30. in the morning, and he’s incredibly excited.
He was cooking with Betsy, she had arthritis, and she was complaining about the peeler, complaining that it was hurting her hands. As I remember, it was an apple tart, though Betsy claims it wasn’t an apple tart. But that’s what Sam claimed to me.
She was frustrated. The old-style metal peeler wasn’t good. Her background was in architecture and design. I think she initiated the idea of, ‘Sam, can you do something about this? Make a better handle.’ She grabbed some clay and started on her own. She recognized: ‘This is something that could be made better, and my husband used to be a housewares executive, and he should do something about it.’ She was very involved in looking at things, trying things, and giving her input along the way.
It instantly dawned on him, here’s an opportunity to make a product. Nothing had really been done in a serious way with kitchen gadgets. They were either cheap items that didn’t work very well, or if they were more expensive, they might be designed with a steel instead of plastic handle, but they didn’t actually work any better than the cheap stuff.
Here’s something he could do to help people, he thought. So he wanted me to get started on it immediately. He knew he had to do a full line of tools. It couldn’t be just a peeler, it had to be 15 to 20 different tools so it could occupy enough wall space at retail to get attention. It had to work for people with arthritis, but it had to work for everybody. This was a hard and fast rule. We couldn’t design something for people just with special needs, because it would have to be in a special catalog, and no one is able to have access to those products. It had to work for everybody, so it could be at decent price for everyone.
He was coming back from France in a month and said, ‘Just get started.’
We did this as a royalty arrangement. He paid us a portion of that as an advance on royalties to cover a little bit of costs. But in reality, we spent a fortune. I remember an advance of $20,000 or $30,000 or something, and I would guess we probably invested a few million (dollars) in time before we’d gotten any kind of return on it. Talk to anyone who has done a royalty project, and they become projects of passion.
This one was particularly easy to do because we had such a great relationship with Sam, a delightful person to work with. He understood the business, but what was important was, he understood design. If he could have been a designer himself he would have been, but he had none of the skills necessary. So he had a lot of admiration and trust in designers, but he had the guidance that what we were doing would be a commercial success as well.
Between the friendship, and trust it would work, and especially after the previous failure, we knew this was in his sweet spot. It was engaging. There was no problem getting designers working late nights and weekends to make it happen.
Understanding the needs of people
When we were developing this OXO line, we knew we had to have one handle that could be applied to a number of different tools. It’s the economics of the business. Different gadgets would have one handle to make it more economical to produce.
So we immediately started trying to understand the various disabilities we wanted to help. We went to the American Arthritis Foundation, and got volunteers. They introduced us to some of their staff members that had arthritis that were willing to be test subjects and talk about it.
We had to design a handle that would work for various uses. You might be pulling, pushing, using it like a paintbrush. We started developing what that handle would be. We realized it needed to be than anything out there. Like the theory behind large crayons for preschoolers, they need something bigger to hang onto firmly. It’s the same thing with people with arthritis. They need something with a larger dimension. A larger oval gave someone a little control. It was fairly short handled because in some cases, like an apple corer, it would have to be able to fit into the palm of your hand.
We also knew we needed a special material, a tactile rubber material to get a better grip, especially when the tool was wet.
At that time, there were no kitchen tools made with rubber. We didn’t even know what the rubber would be for it. Sam and I were flying back and forth from Taiwan, thinking that’s where we’d manufacture it, talking to factories, asking if they have a material. I remember joking with Sam, sitting on a Northwest Airlines flight. The dinner roll they served was in a plastic bag with the right feel and texture. It was certainly food-safe.
I can’t remember how we were turned onto a material called Santoprene. From Monsanto, it was created following several years of research and development to find a new material for injection-molded tires. It was a polymer a lot like rubber, and it had all the right characteristics, but at the time, it was only used for gaskets and things to seal dishwashers. Nothing you’d actually touch. Monsanto got very excited about their material being used in a consumer product. So we were offered lots of support.
Building intuitive design
I talked a lot about the shape, but we still wanted some indication of where your forefinger might go on the grip.
There were some advantages to having a depression for your fingers, but it didn’t seem all that interesting. So we were looking at having soft spots instead, where your thumb and forefinger were. We had a way of doing that by making it hollow in the handle, so it could squeeze easier but you wouldn’t have to see those hollow spots.
Sam was looking, and said it’s nice to have that feature, but people need to see the feature at retail. There needs to be something about it that will attract them to it, signifying there’s something special about this handle. If you hide it, they’ll never know unless they pick it up.
That was his retail savviness to have that insight, that this had to be visible. At the same time we were looking at different ways to make a handle that would mold more easily to the way you grip. Sam had sort of recalled seeing bicycle handle grips with thin fins on them, so we went over to a bike shop, grabbed one of these handles and brought it in, started playing with it, and that was what was the inspiration for the fins.
The end result is exactly what you can see—two scooped out areas that would be under your thumb and forefinger, but they’ve been filled with the fins to make a simple straight handle that’s all you need for a light grip. But when you want a stronger grip, your thumb and forefinger push the fins into the scooped out areas.
I think one of the things about this product, one of the reasons it’s been so successful and lasted so many years, is that every time I tell the story of how it came about, I’ll hand people the peeler, and without fail, this has probably been thousands and thousands of times–the very first thing they do when they pick it up is start squeezing those fins with their thumb and forefinger. Literally without fail. It’s instantaneous.
And as soon as they do that, they’re interacting with it in a playful way, which says that there’s something special about this handle. You could do the same thing with an ergonomic shape, maybe. You’d grab it and say, ‘Okay, whatever.’ With this, the handle is almost like a conversation between your hand and the peeler itself. They’re conversing back and forth as you’re pushing those fins around.
Manufacturing the peeler
The design was on the right track, but it was extremely difficult to be made. We had a U.S. manufacturer who refused to make it. They said the fins were so thin that the injection molding tools would wear out too fast, and wouldn’t touch it. Taiwanese manufacturers didn’t have the technical skill to do something like that at the time.
[Photo: Oxo]We went to knife companies in Japan. One company called Mitsubohi Cutlery, dated back to the 1800s when they made samurai swords. We went to a meeting there to see if they’d make the product at a high-quality factory. We were sitting across the table from this Japanese man in a business suit, and we’re wearing polo shirts.
We finally get when they say they’re not sure whether they can make it or not. And they had the handmade model I’d made in our shop. They said, ‘We have to ask Mr. So-and-So in the tooling factory.’
We hop in the the limousine to the tooling factory, and there’s this guy with overalls, with a remote controller and a giant steel tool over his head they’re moving from one side of the shop to the other. They showed him the model I’d made, conversing back and forth in Japanese. We had no idea what they were talking about. Then all the sudden, they started to laugh, and they came over and said, ‘Yes, Mr. So-and-So said we can make this.’ I asked, ‘What did you decide that based on?’ When they were talking, they kept pointing at me, so I didn’t know what was going on. Apparently, Mr. So-and-So said that if I could make it, he could make it.
This was two months before the housewares show in San Francisco, when Sam was going to show this off, make a big splash at the show. You can imagine Sam’s nervousness, wondering if this box would ever arrive, he was assured by them it would. We had peelers, serving spoons, spatulas. We had a dozen tools.
The day before the show, the boxes arrived. And they were perfect.
[Photo: Oxo]We’d designed a booth for Sam, with these handmade prototypes. Yellow rubber gloves filled with plaster worked as pedestals to hold all these different things, to give the idea we’d made a full catalog. The show started, and I remember standing in the booth with Sam’s son who was trained as a lawyer, and just helping out. The first time someone came up to us and wanted to buy the product, and we were like, what do we do?
It was a huge success at the show. This big news–that Sam had come out of retirement with this new idea–generated a lot of excitement, and a lot of concern as well. No one had ever seen big, black rubber tools and were not quite sure this would work. The only major retailed that decided to take a risk on it was a store called Lechters, a predecessor to Bed Bath and Beyond. They had housewares stores all over the country.
They took it on, and initially sales were very, very slow. We brainstormed how we’d get this to pick up. We convinced them they should put out big stainless steel bowls we provided with peelers and carrots, so people could pick up a peeler and try it. With that display, it took off.
Proving inclusive design at retail
The original “Good Grips” packaging we introduced was black on one side, white on the other, and there was a graphic of a palm going into the fins, emphasizing that idea of the touchpoint. The handle hung below the cardboard card, and so when someone reached for it, they had to touch the handle. That was fairly unique at the time.
The logo is kinda fun. OXO. It’s kind of an abstraction of a face, with the eyes and nose. Sam liked that name. He came up with that name because he liked O, X, and O. Copco had a lot of Os. The reason he liked Cs, Os, and Xs is you could read them upside down, backwards, whatever. Of course no one knows how to pronounce it. They call it ‘oh ex oh,’ not ‘ox-oh.’
People would buy the products, then they would come back and get them for friends. We’d get very heartwarming letters with stories. The satisfaction they had was like a lightbulb went off and they could do something. That’s probably what kept driving Sam: The product itself really is never that important. What someone can accomplish, that’s important. It’s how it makes them feel.
We’ve been living this for so long–but the OXO line was universal design, or inclusive design, long before either had a name. Inclusive design is a much better term, I think, because it means including more people. With inclusive design, you never know when you might have the need for a product like this. You could injure your hand playing sports, or your grandmother could be dropping in for a visit. Just this idea of making a product that was better for anybody, and be for everybody! I think we were happy when it got a name to describe what we were doing.
Later on, the American Arthritis Foundation gave us some recognition. We put the endorsement onto the package, but we took that off later because we realized, one of the things that’s really important for inclusive design is that the product isn’t stigmatizing. If you identify it as something for arthritis, it’s stigmatizing for someone with arthritis, and it prevents someone buying it who otherwise might, because they think it’s for someone with special needs. We realized someone in need would instantly realize this was better for them, anyway.
Meanwhile, to this day, everybody attributes the function of the peeler to the handle. But the handle isn’t actually the reason why it works. The reason the peeler works so well is because the blade is really sharp. If you put a dull blade on our peeler, it won’t peel any better than our peeler. If you put a sharp blade on a stick, it will peel was well as our peeler. At a factory, we’d just hold the blades and peel carrots. If you could hear it cut, it was sharp. The factory thought we were crazy. But that was actually the secret behind it, and is true to most of the tools. The performance is more important than anything else, second to that is the design that communicated what it does.