TR: What types of community projects are you working on?
KT: We initially wanted to see if there was something we could do for rural schools that would help the educational system. We visited a number of schools, quite a few of which already have PCs. In fact, it turns out that 5 to 10 percent of the rural schools in India have PCs. But they are not able to afford a ratio of one PC per child. So every time we would see the same situation: one PC surrounded by five or 10 kids, and usually a dominant child in the center, dominating the mouse and the keyboard, while the other kids are not benefiting as much. This is a situation where we can multiply the value of the PC by adding other kinds of interaction. We developed software for PCs that will support as many mouses as you have USB ports. Each mouse has a different-colored cursor, allowing, say, competitive flash-card games that encourage certain kinds of learning. We’re doing preliminary studies to see if there is educational value. We believe we can take a situation where there is one kid and he’s having a great time – and it’s almost always a “he”, and the other kids are fighting over the mouse, or are simply bored – and turn that into a situation where all of the children are thoroughly engaged.
TR: It’s hard to imagine ten school kids bunched around a single computer, all interacting with it at the same time. Does it really work in practice?
KT: Somewhere between six and ten kids, this model breaks down, but up to five is quite doable. The software does need to be specially written for this paradigm. We’re hoping to release a software development kit so that people can write educational content using multiple mouses. We’re expecting to pilot the technology in schools in and around Bangalore, and if those work out, we’d like to scale up the study, not just in India but beyond.
TR: How does having a lab in India help Microsoft in the short term?
KT: Corporations are really waking up to the potential business in emerging markets, and as a result there is growing interest across Microsoft in understanding countries like India and China much better. We gather a lot of knowledge just being on site and understanding everyday life in India. When we come back to Redmond we spend a lot of time with product groups, some of which are very explicitly interested in emerging markets, and some of which are just considering the idea. In each case we are still in the early learning stages. We are trying to understand the people who are fairly wealthy and are probably our first, immediate customers, and then trying to see how we can make an impact [among other demographics] where we may not see any short-term revenue, but where, if you engage, you will open up new markets in the future.
TR: Since September 11, it’s often been difficult for foreign scientists and engineers to get the necessary visas to work in the United States. Does having a lab in India help Microsoft get access to researchers you might not be able to employ otherwise?
KT: In theory, that would be a great idea, as a way to bring in people who are very good technically but who cannot come to the U.S. for whatever reason. But actually, most of the people we’ve hired have very voluntarily either returned to India from abroad or stayed in India. We are tapping into a population that really has the option to work more or less anywhere, but they are by choice staying in India.