I worried that the appearance of my iPod audio recorder would raise a ruckus during my first visit to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, last week. But when the invited “bloggers” across the board room table from me whipped out their Mac Powerbooks, I knew I figured that they would probably take more flak than I would.
Upon my arrival to Microsoft headquarters, I was excited to learn that a handful of press and I had been granted first-time access to several members of the Media Center team, even gaining a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at three testing labs.
It is great to see the growing level of attention paid to the CI channel by Microsoft's Media Center team. I remember back in the late '90s, when Microsoft's view of the connected home was a bit comical. Specifically, I attended a press event in a New York City loft where actors played the parts of family members. "Grandma" touted the novelty of using the "World Web" to e-mail her grandkids in New York "all the way from New Jersey" and Mom marveled at her ability to read recipes "from the computer" right there in the kitchen. Microsoft has come along way in the integrated home space, especially when it comes to its Media Center platform.
Indeed, the CI channel continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of more sophisticated offerings from this product line. Microsoft MC "Racing Team" is so entrenched in the installation market that it has hired
several former CI guys, including the senior program manager for their custom install channel Todd Rutherford (pictured, right), to drive its marketing and product development. That team's "Racing Room" is a fully automated room, replete with a Crestron system for controlling all of the room's sources and displays. The gear is switched through a Gefen HDMI 4x4 matrix switch, which effectively allows the team to take any source and put it on any display.
The Racing Room also contains two Media Center PCs as well as a Windows home server. One Media Center is running the much-maligned Windows Vista operating system, while the other is running its highly touted replacement-to-be: Windows 7. The Racing Team simulates scenarios that custom installers might encounter within an integrated home, debugging flow-control problems and other snags related to consumer-grade products. In the back of the room is an HP Touchsmart PC that's also running Windows 7. The goal there is to improve the touchscreen experience of Media Center. The touchscreen capability of Windows 7's Media Center is another example of how Microsoft is driving to the masses what began in the custom install channel.
I could tell you about the products I saw in the three test labs I toured, but then I'd have to kill you... well not me, but Microsoft has people. I can tell you that Microsoft's Media Center test labs contain 256 machines that are used to evaluate data and build quality across a variety of devices and brands. Another team is primarily responsible for looking at automation (like auto installs of software and virus updates) that runs overnight, looking to see what failed and then farming those bugs out to developers to be fixed. Another lab is much more TV focused, where various tuners are tested for compatibility with the MS platforms
Other highlights of the visit included a guided tour of Microsoft’s own “home of the future” model home, which frankly, impressed the heck out of me. RFID, as I’ve written about before, will play a huge role in “connected homes” of the future, as will projected images on the walls or even enormous OLED screens with revolving family photos, posters in teenagers’ rooms, etc. Some of the toys that we saw had already made their way into the Disneyland display I toured during the summer, but what I saw in Redmond, really got me focused on the future. But maybe I was just really relieved that not a single actor was dressed in costume, playing the part of Grandma or Mom, in their “high-tech” house.