Research into Computer-Supported Collaborative Work has explored problems of disengagement in video meetings and device conflict since the 1990s, but good solutions that could work at scale have been elusive. Microsoft Research Cambridge UK had been working on these issues when the 2015 Hackathon arose as an opportunity to highlight for the rest of the company that just a few simple and dynamic device combinations might provide users with the means to solve the issues themselves.
While we had explored some research prototypes in late 2014 and early 2015, for the Hackathon we decided to use a vision video with the goal of getting the attention of the Skype product group, because we knew that the idea would have the most impact as an infrastructural feature of an existing product rather than as a new stand-alone product. We called the video “Skype Unleashed” to connote breaking free of the traditional one person per endpoint model.
When we won the Business category, our prize was meeting with the sponsor of the Business category, then-COO Kevin Turner. We scrambled to build a proof-of-concept prototype, which at first we jokingly referred to as “Skype Skwid”, a deliberate misspelling of “squid”, because it was like a body that had lots of tentacles that could reach out to different other things. However, we realized that we needed an official project name, so we became “Project Wellington”. This was a related inside joke, because the largest squid in the world is the Colossal Squid, and the largest specimen in the world is in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa… in Wellington, New Zealand.
So as Project Wellington we went to meet Kevin Turner, who also invited Gurdeep Singh Pall, then-CVP for Skype, in November 2015. Both immediately saw the relevance of the concepts and Gurdeep connected us to Brian MacDonald’s incubation project that would become Microsoft Teams.
Brian also understood right away that Companion Experiences could be an innovative market differentiator for meetings and a mobile driver for Teams. He championed the integration of our small Cambridge group with his Modern Meetings group as a loose v-team. The Modern Meetings group was exceptionally welcoming, graciously showing us the ropes of productization and taking on the formidable challenge of helping us socialize the need for changes at all levels of the product, from media stack, middle tier, and all clients. We, in turn, learned a lot about the cadence of production, scoping, aligning with the needs of multiple roadmaps, and the multitude of issues required to turn feature ideas into releasable code.Through 2016 and 2017 we worked on design iterations, usability testing, and middle tier and client code. We were thrilled when first glimpses of roving camera and proximity joining were shown at Build 2017, and then announced as officially rolling out at Enterprise Connect 2018.
We are very excited to see these features released. We are also excited to close the research loop by evaluating our thesis that dynamic device combinations will improve hybrid collaboration in video meetings, and doing research ‘in the wild’ at a scale unimaginable by most research projects. Microsoft is one of only a handful of institutions that can make research possible that will improve the productivity of millions of people daily. So as well as releasing product features, we are exceptionally proud of the model of collaboration itself. And, indeed, we are continuing to collaborate with Microsoft Teams even after these features are released, as we now have a tremendous relationship with a product group that understands how we work and values our help.
To come full circle, then, it was Satya Nadella’s emphasis on the Hackathon as a valuable use of company time, and The Garage’s organization of the event itself, that allowed ideas well outside a product group to be catapulted to the attention of people who could see its value and then provide a path to making it happen.