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Pervasive Pens

Away from the lab, over a meal of Shanghai-style meatball soup and steamed fish, Wang explains how the lab’s culture promotes invention. Besides sharing a “work hard, eat hard” mentality, he says, the lab’s members-and leaders-are experienced researchers who understand that breakthroughs take time. “You don’t always have to prove yourself in a month, or even a year,” says Wang. So researchers have the flexibility to try a variety of approaches-important for ambitious projects like reinventing the pen.

Microsoft Research Asia is a large corporate lab, employing 150 full-time researchers, but it has surprisingly little bureaucracy, Wang says. No special approval procedures. No heavy-handed mandates from above. The company attempts to nurture invention by giving its engineers the freedom to explore interesting avenues of long-term research, while staying focused on near-term results by setting milestones and conducting project reviews a few times a year. That makes it “more like an academic-style setting,” says Wang. “We publish papers, go to conferences, and host many visiting professors. It’s an open environment.”

Observers say that this openness is essential to the lab’s productivity, especially in a country with a limited history of corporate research. “They’ve been a success because of their ties to academia,” says Shiqiang Yang, executive vice chair of the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Tsinghua University, one of Beijing’s leading engineering schools. The free exchange of ideas with students and professors has strengthened the lab’s standing in the academic community-and that helps it recruit some of China’s top students and computer scientists.

The close ties are paying off: more than 70 technologies developed at the Beijing lab have found their way into Microsoft products in areas such as video game graphics and speech recognition for dictation. As for Wang’s digital pen, it could open up whole new markets for Microsoft. Although commercialization is still a few years away, Wang’s team is in discussions with the company’s product development groups in Redmond. Specific product plans have not been made yet, says Rashid, “but it generates a lot of exciting ideas about what might be possible.”

In fact, technologies developed by Wang’s group in the course of the pen project are already paying dividends to the company. Software that can recognize and manipulate handwriting on a screen is a feature of the Tablet PC operating system Microsoft released in 2002. The Asian market could be the first point of entry for interfaces like the digital pen because of the demand for software to recognize and edit Asian-language characters, the sheer number of which makes them tedious to input using keyboards.

With any new invention, there are numerous challenges in transforming an exciting prototype into an actual product; but here, Wang’s training in psychology and human factors should serve him well. The pen and its software need to be made easier to use, he says; customers won’t tolerate added complexity. With the remaining kinks worked out, however, the invention has the potential to become ubiquitous, because of the familiarity and convenience of ordinary pens. “The pen is so pervasive, so expressive, and one of the best inventions,” Wang says. “So I think the pen could be a very good computing device for the future.”

Ultimately, says Wang, everything on your desk-books, journals, printouts-will have a digital connection to your computer. It’s what he calls “closing the loop between analog and digital.” And with increases in computing power and memory, a device like Wang’s pen could become the main computer interface people use on the road. Wang envisions that users could not only enter and store data but also, with a wireless handheld computer, access information in, say, a magazine article just by underlining words that can be recognized and “looked up” on the Web.

With so much to do, though, Wang has no time to waste. He might work for one of the world’s largest corporations, but he still keeps the long, nighttime hours of a lone inventor. After dinner, while most of Beijing is dark and quiet, he goes back to work, intent on penning the future of human-computer interfaces.

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