Tag Archives: team

Slack redesigns app as Microsoft Teams hits 44 million users

Slack has redesigned its team messaging app in a bid to make the product simpler for workers who aren’t as tech-savvy as its earliest customers.

The refresh comes as Slack falls further behind rival Microsoft Teams in the race for users. The Microsoft product now has 44 million daily active users, up from 20 million four months ago, the tech giant announced Thursday.

Teams has gained 12 million daily active users in the past week alone, a spike the company attributed to the coronavirus outbreak. Slack had 12 million daily active users as of September 2019 but has likely exceeded that figure by now. Slack said it added paid customers at nearly three times its typical rate between Feb. 1 and March 18, netting 7,000 new accounts.

The Slack redesign contains several elements that make the product look more like Teams. The top of the app now features a search bar and navigation buttons. Slack also added tabs for files and notifications, such as when a user tags someone in a message.

Even more significant, Slack now lets paid users place channels within folders. For example, a user could put several channels in a “marketing team” folder. The setup is similar to how Teams groups channels — except in Slack, each user gets to customize the layout.

The inability to organize channels into groups had been a stumbling block for many Slack users, said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research. Slack should be able to get some companies to switch from free to paid plans with the introduction of folders as a premium service, he said.

The redesign also lays the groundwork for Slack to introduce more real-time communications features. A newly reorganized sidebar within channels features a prominent phone icon that lets users begin a video call.

Screenshot of Slack redesign
Slack unveiled a significant redesign of its app interface on Wednesday.

In the future, Slack plans to “do even more with that call button” through partnerships, said Ilan Frank, Slack’s vice president of enterprise product. Frank declined to provide further details. Currently, Slack’s built-in options for voice and video calls are far less advanced than what’s available in Teams.

The prominent call button is an example of how Slack is trying to make interacting with its app more intuitive. Over the past couple of years, the vendor has given users new ways to access third-party integrations without resorting to so-called slash commands. Those commands require users to type, for example, “/call” to start a call.

A new shortcut menu introduced with the redesign lets users access integrations through a few clicks of their mouse rather than by typing a command. At launch, the menu contains shortcuts to Slack tasks, as well as to the integrations for Cisco Webex, Simple Poll and Freshdesk, a help desk app.

Slack is giving its newest users access to the redesign first. Like many collaboration vendors, Slack has reported an uptick in usage in recent weeks as people work from home because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“We want to make sure that those new teams that are formed right now, especially in this time of remote work, see this new interface,” Frank said. Everyone else will get the update within a few weeks, except Slack’s largest customers. They will get more time to roll out the new design.

Through its latest changes, Slack wants to make its app more palatable to nontechnical users. The move could help the vendor convince more customers to deploy its app companywide. Software developers were the first to adopt Slack in droves. But that cohort now represents a minority of Slack’s users, Frank said.

Slack needs to sell to more organizations with thousands of employees to become profitable. The company has made progress in that regard: Over the past year, the number of customers each paying more than $100,000 annually for Slack increased by 55% to 893 customers.

But Slack is facing an uphill battle against Microsoft, which has a stranglehold on the market for cloud productivity tools. More than 200 million workers use Office 365 every month, giving them access to Teams at no additional charge. And Microsoft is particularly good at selling to large organizations: Ninety-three of the Fortune 100 are now using Teams.

On a conference call with investors in December 2019, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield tacitly acknowledged he would have difficulty reaching a customer base equal in size to Microsoft’s. For example, Microsoft Lync, an older collaboration application that the vendor later rebranded as Skype for Business, had 100 million users in 2015.

In response to Teams hitting 44 million users on Thursday, Slack said in a statement that its app and Teams are “different tools used for different purposes.” The company said Slack is a collaboration tool that integrates with third-party applications. Nevertheless, Microsoft has integrated Teams with other applications too. Also, Teams has most of the same collaboration features as Slack.

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For Sale – delidded 9900k and Gigabyte Z390 Aorus Master

I’m considering having a go at team red so thinking about getting rid of my delidded 9900k and Gigabyte Z390 Aorus Master mb, my chip is good for 5.1ghz @ 1.315v and is in the board with frame so direct die, i will include the EK-Supremacy EVO with the bundle, I’m not looking to split so please don’t ask.
I’m looking for £600 inc delivery

Location
Newcastle
Price and currency
£600
Delivery cost included
Delivery Is Included
Prefer goods collected?
I have no preference
Advertised elsewhere?
Advertised elsewhere
Payment method
Bank transfer

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For Sale – Gaming PC: 7700k/16GB/Vega56/NVME SSD Full specs inside

So I’ve gone back to team red out of a need to do hefty video editing and as such selling my old PC which was mostly used for gaming:

Intel Core i7 7700K (delid + liquid metal) – Cooled by a Noctua NH-D15
16GB Corsair Dominator Platinum 3200MHz C16
Asus Intel ROG STRIX Z270E Gaming
Samsung 960 EVO M.2 SSD (250GB)
Radeon Vega 56 8GB HBM2 (Purchased April 2019 so still within warranty)
Corsair Crystal 460X Midi Tower
BeQuiet PurePower 11 500W 80Plus Bronze PSU

If I spec up a PC today on OcUK at the same or lower spec parts it comes to £793, so this is available for £600 collected.

Also available are 2x WD RED 6TB NAS hard drives for £130 each. Replaced by larger capacity drives so working fine just no longer used. S.M.A.R.T tests etc all available.

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Microsoft Airband: An annual update on connecting rural America – Microsoft on the Issues

Last year, a team of Amish-owned horses dragged a load up a ridge near Essex, New York. It was a normal scene for rural America – straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting – except that they were bearing telecommunications equipment to connect the local community to the internet.  

Essex is barely 12 miles across the lake from Burlington, Vermont, but broadband is scarce. In our increasingly digital and interconnected world, broadband is as important as electricity or water. Rural communities without broadband face higher unemployment rates and see fewer educational and economic opportunities. For the woman overseeing the horses, Beth Schiller, CEO of CvWireless LLC, this is a solvable problem. Together with Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, she’s bringing connectivity to her community. 

In the summer of 2017, we launched the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which brings broadband connectivity to people living in underserved rural areas. To eliminate the rural broadband gap, we bring together privatesector capital investment in new technologies and rural broadband deployments with publicsector financial and regulatory support. We set an ambitious goal: to provide access to broadband to three million people in unserved rural areas of the United States by July 4, 2022At two and a half years since launch, we are at the halfway point of the time we gave ourselves to meet this goal and we feel good about the steady progress we’ve made and how much we have learned. But one thing we have learned is that the problem is even bigger than we imagined. 

The broadband gap is wide but solvable 

Beth’s horse-borne approach to connectivity may be unique, but the problem is not: According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2019 broadband report, more than 21 million people in America, nearly 17 million of whom live in rural communities, don’t have access to broadband.  

A recent study by BroadbandNow found that the number of unserved people is nearly double the current reported amount and more than 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband especially in rural areas. Our own data shows that some 157.3 million people in the U.S. do not use the internet at broadband speedsAnd while we are making progress and the reported number is down by six million people from last year, that’s still more than the populations of our eight biggest states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Georgia – combined. More must be done. 

As we’ve said from the start of the initiativewithout accurate data we cannot fully understand the broadband gap. You cannot solve a problem you don’t understand. More accurate data will help deploy broadband in the places its neededBecause the government makes many funding decisions based on federal data, communities that lack broadband – but, according to FCC data, have access to broadband – have less access to resources needed to actually secure broadband connectivity. This is certainly a Catch-22, but it can be solved. We’re encouraged that the FCC has adopted new policies that should result in broadband providers reporting more accurate data and that Congress has worked on legislation to improve the FCC’s broadband dataIt’s imperative that these policy changes are quickly and fully implemented so that people without broadband will get access to it 

Data Chart

Steady progress to close the broadband gap

But the country can’t wait on perfect data. We’re moving full steam ahead in the areas where we know we can help and making steady progress against our 3-million-person goal. We’re now in 25 states and one territory, and staging pilot programs in two additional states. We’ve already reached a total of 633,000 previously unserved people, up from 24,000 people in 2018, and as our partners’ network deployments accelerate over the coming months, we will be reaching many more.

We haven’t made this progress alone. We have made it through building partnerships throughout the United States, learning more about local solutions that will close the broadband gap. Partners such as Wisper Internet will work to bring broadband access to almost 1 million people in rural unserved areas in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. In Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, our partner Watch Communications will bring high-speed internet access to more than 860,000 people living in unserved rural areas. Our partnerships also bring connectivity to historically underserved communities, including those residing on tribal lands. Sacred Wind Communications will help approximately 47,000 people on and off Navajo lands in New Mexico reap the benefits that come with access to the internet. Moreover, we have forged strategic partnerships with American Tower Corporation, Tilson, and Zayo Group over the last year that will further bring down the end-to-end network deployment costs for rural ISPs. We have also established a broad-based Airband ISP Program that provides ISPs in 47 states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico with access to critical assets, helping them connect rural communities.

There’s good news about the cost of connectivity. The price of TV white spaces devices (TVWS) – a new connectivity technology that’s particularly useful in rural areas where laying cable simply isn’t an option – continues to drop. In the last year, the cost of customer equipment has plummeted by 50%, all while achievable speeds have increased tenfold.

At the same time, we’re pleased to see our partners in government make important, steady progress to enable these new technologies. We applaud Chairman Pai and the FCC for their vote last week to propose positive and necessary changes to TVWS regulations. Reducing red tape will enable ISPs to accelerate their progress in rural broadband deployment and help bridge the digital divide in rural America. We are also pleased that the FCC has announced plans to make up to $20 billion available in Rural Digital Opportunity funding to help ISPs bring high-speed broadband access to high-cost unserved rural areas. At the state level, we’re pleased that several state governments have created their own funding programs to support new broadband infrastructure, including Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and South Dakota.

What comes after connectivity?

As we’ve connected communities across the country, we’ve kept asking ourselves a central, key question: What comes after connectivity?

Broadband connections aren’t a panacea for all that ails rural America. Simply plugging in an ethernet cable doesn’t create jobs, increase farmers’ yields or provide a veteran with healthcare. Rural communities need resources beyond infrastructure to rebuild and lift themselves up. That’s why much of our work goes well beyond connectivity.

From education, agriculture, veterans to healthcare, we are working with local and national organizations to take the next step. For example, we are partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support their telehealth initiative. We are working with Airband partners to offer discounted broadband service to veterans as well as provide vital digital skills and employability training. Our work on Airband is enabling other Microsoft efforts – such as our TechSpark program, digital skills initiatives and even environmental sustainability – to flourish in areas we’d never be able to reach otherwise.

Take for example, agriculture. The family farm is the embodiment of rural America. Unfortunately, many American farmers have struggled in recent years, whether because of policy, extreme weather events and climate change, or falling crop prices. Farmers need help, and many have turned to new technologies to compete in the global marketplace. Our FarmBeats platform is one such technology that can give farmers a real-time view of their land using ground-based sensors and “internet of things” technology to track everything from soil temperature to pH levels to moisture data. This can create a modern “Farmers’ Almanac” to chart out the farm’s future, helping farmers predict what they should plant and where, increase yields, better utilize fertilizer and irrigate more efficiently. But a farm that lacks access to high-speed internet will be left in the past, unable to use these new technologies. That’s where Airband comes in: connecting rural communities to transformative technologies.

The effort to electrify rural America in the 1930s enabled new technologies to transform those areas, empowering farms, ranches and other rural places and improving quality of life and economic opportunity. Now, nearly 90 years later, broadband can similarly provide the infrastructure to lift up rural America, but we’re losing the race against time. While our investments and those of our partners are taking seed and we are beginning to see advances, technological progress doesn’t wait. If we don’t move faster, rural America will be left further behind. We can’t let that happen.

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A brother and sister team are rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean – their equipment includes Microsoft Teams

A brother and sister team taking part in a 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean have stayed in touch with family and friends by using Microsoft Teams, despite being hundreds of miles from land.

Anna and Cameron McLean have used the Microsoft tool to contact loved ones, and receive weather and race updates from a crew on shore during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Known as “the world’s toughest row”, participants spend 60 days at sea in a small boat, braving 40-foot waves, sharks, illness and a schedule that sees them sleep and row in two-hour shifts as they make their way from La Gomera in The Canary Islands to Antigua. To put the gruelling race in context, fewer people have rowed the Atlantic than reached the summit of Everest.

While many mixed-sex teams have completed the challenge, Anna and Cameron believe they are the first brother and sister to take part.

Speaking via Teams on the 35th day of their journey, Anna said the Microsoft tool had been crucial for receiving messages of support that have kept the siblings going.

  • Part of the Microsoft Teams call between Anna McLean, in the Atlantic, and Andy Trotman, in the UK

“We can use Teams to communicate with anyone in the world from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s been essential,” she said. “Teams has been such a dream because we’ve been able to maintain a two-way dialogue with our family and friends back home, as well as our sponsors. We have been able to share real-time updates and pictures, and get information such as the weather forecast. That’s been a big contributing factor to the success and speed of our crossing. Teams has helped us navigate the best and most direct course.

“It’s been easy to set up, too. We connect to the internet via a satellite, and then open up the Teams app on my phone. That’s it.”

Anna, 25, and Cameron, 32, are currently third in the pairs race, in a field of 34 vessels. They are each burning 10,000 calories a day and fighting against sleep deprivation, exhaustion, blisters and bruises. Meals consist of “space food” that has to be mixed with water and left on deck so the sun can warm it up. Sea water is filtered for drinking, and they aim to drink at least 10 litres a day.

Even though they are experienced rowers, having competed at university, nothing could prepare them for a race of this magnitude.

Anna McLean rowing across the Atlantic
Anna and Cameron are spending 60 days at sea in a small boat, braving 40-foot waves, sharks, illness and a schedule that sees them sleep and row in two-hour shifts

“The nights are brutal,” said Anna, who works for Microsoft partner AlfaPeople. “With a lack of moonlight, the nights are so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face or the waves that crash over the side of the boat and threaten to capsize you. The sea was so rough one night that we broke an oar.

“Then, each new day brings new challenges. Our water maker and autohelm broke, and we have been followed by what I estimate to be a 14-foot shark. But we have no choice but to overcome those challenges through strength and perseverance.”

Anna and Cameron are rowing to raise money for UN Women, an organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. “The impact they have for women and girls everywhere is just phenomenal,” Anna added.

The pair have around 300 miles to go before they reach the finish line, and Anna is already looking forward to some simple luxuries.

“I can’t wait to see my mum and dad, and give them a big hug,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to a hot shower and eating fresh fruit and vegetables.”

  • Subscribe to the UK News Centre to learn more about Anna and Cameron’s challenge in an upcoming feature

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How Microsoft re-envisioned the data warehouse with Azure Synapse Analytics

About four years ago, the Microsoft Azure team began to notice a big problem troubling many of its customers. A mass migration to the cloud was in full swing, as enterprises signed up by the thousands to reap the benefits of flexible, largescale computing and data storage. But the next iteration of that tech revolution, in which companies would use their growing stores of data to get more tangible business benefits, had stalled.

Technology providers, including Microsoft, have built a variety of systems to collect, retrieve and analyze enormous troves of information that would uncover market trends and insights, paving the way toward a new era of improved customer service, innovation and efficiency.

But those systems were built independently by different engineering teams and sold as individual products and services. They weren’t designed to connect with one another, and customers would have to learn how to operate them separately, wasting time, money and precious IT talent.

“Instead of trying to add more features to each of our services, we decided to take a step back and figure out how to bring their core capabilities together to make it easy for customers to collect and analyze all of their increasingly diverse data, to break down data silos and work together more collaboratively,” said Raghu Ramakrishnan, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for data.

At its Ignite conference this week in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft announced the end result of a yearslong effort to address the problem: Azure Synapse Analytics, a new service that merges the capabilities of Azure SQL Data Warehouse with new enhancements such as on-demand query as a service.

Microsoft said this new offering will help customers put their data to work much more quickly, productively and securely by pulling together insights from all data sources, data warehouses and big data analytics systems. And, the company said, with deeper integration between Power BI and Azure Machine Learning, Azure Synapse Analytics can reduce the time required to process and share that data, speeding up the insights that businesses can glean.

What’s more, it will allow many more businesses to take advantage of game-changing technologies like data analytics and artificial intelligence, which are helping scientists to better predict the weather, search engines to better understand people’s intent and workers to more easily handle mundane tasks.

This newest effort to break down data silos also builds on other Microsoft projects, such as the Open Data Initiative and Azure Data Share, which allows you to share data from multiple sources and even other organizations.

Microsoft said Azure Synapse Analytics is also designed to support the increasingly popular DevOps strategy, in which development and operations staff collaborate more closely to create and implement services that work better throughout their lifecycles.

YouTube Video

A learning process

Azure Synapse Analytics is the result of a lot of work, and a little trial and error.

At first, Ramakrishnan said, the team developed highlevel guidelines showing customers how to glue the systems together themselves. But they quickly realized that was too much to ask.

“That required a lot of expertise in the nitty gritty of our platforms,” Ramakrishnan said. Customers made it overwhelmingly clear that we needed to do better.”

So, the company went back to the drawing board and spent an additional two years revamping the heart of its data business, Azure SQL Data Warehouse, which lets customers build, test, deploy and manage applications and services in the cloud.

A breakthrough came when the company realized that customers need to analyze all their data in a single service, without having to copy terabytes of information across various systems to use different analytic capabilities – as has traditionally been the case with data warehouses and data lakes.

With the new offering, customers can use their data analytics engine of choice, such as Apache Spark or SQL, on all their data. That’s true whether it’s structured data, such as rows of numbers on spreadsheets, or unstructured data, such as a collection of social media posts.

This project was risky. It involved deep technical surgery: completely rewriting the guts of the SQL query processing engine to optimize it for the cloud and make it capable of instantly handling big bursts of work as well as very large and diverse datasets.

It also required unprecedented integration among several teams within Microsoft, some of whom would have to make hard choices. Established plans had to be scrapped. Resources earmarked for new features would be redirected to help make the entire system work better.

“In the beginning, the conversations were often heated. But as we got into the flow of it, they became easier. We began to come together,” Ramakrishnan said.

Microsoft also had to make sure that the product would work for any company, regardless of employees’ technical expertise.

“Most companies can’t afford to hire teams of 20 people to drive data projects and wire together multiple systems. There aren’t even enough skilled people out there to do all that work,” said Daniel Yu, director of product marketing for Azure Data and Artificial Intelligence.

Making it easy for customers

Customers can bring together various sources of data into a single feed with Azure Synapse Analytics Studio, a console – or single pane of glass that will allow a business professional with minimal technical expertise to locate and collect data from multiple sources like sales, supply chain, finance and product development. They can then choose how and where to store that data, and they can use it to create reports through Microsoft’s popular Power BI analytics service.

In a matter of hours, Azure Synapse will deliver useful business insights that used to take days or even weeks and months, said Rohan Kumar, corporate vice president for Azure Data.

“Let’s say an executive wants a detailed report on sales performance in the eastern U.S. over the last six months,” Kumar said. Today, a data engineer has to do a lot of work to find where that data is stored and write a lot of brittle code to tie various services together. They might even have to bring in a systems integrator partner. With Azure Synapse, there’s no code required. It’s a much more intuitive experience.”

The complexity of the technical problems Azure Synapse addressed would be hard to overstate. Microsoft had to meld multiple independent components into one coherent form factor, while giving a wide range of people – from data scientists to line of business owners – their preferred tools for accessing and using data.


With Azure Synapse, there’s no code required. It’s a much more intuitive experience.”

~ Rohan Kumar, corporate vice president for Azure Data


That includes products like SQL Server, the open source programming interface Apache Spark, Azure Data Factory and Azure Data Studio, as well as notebook interfaces preferred by many data professionals to clean and model data.

“Getting all those capabilities to come together fluidly, making it run faster, simpler, eliminating overlapping processes – there was some scary good stuff getting done,” Ramakrishnan said.

The result is a data analytics system that will be as easy to use as a modern mobile phone. Just as the smartphone replaced several devices by making all of their core capabilities intuitively accessible in a single device, the Azure Synapse “smartphone for data” now allows a data engineer to build an entire end-to-end data pipeline in one place. It also enables data scientists and analysts to look at the underlying data in ways that are natural to them.

And just as the phone has driven waves of collaboration and business innovation, Azure Synapse will free up individuals and companies to introduce new products and services as quickly as they can dream them up, Microsoft said.

“If we can help different people view data through a lens that is natural to them, while it’s also visible to others in ways natural to them, then we will transform the way companies work,” Ramakrishnan said. That’s how we should measure our success.

Top photo: Rohan Kumar, corporate vice president for Azure Data, says Azure Synapse will deliver useful business insights that used to take days or even weeks and months. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

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Announcing our new podcast: Artificial Intelligence in Education | | Microsoft EDU

Dan Bowen and Ray Fleming, from our Microsoft Australia Education team, have put their voices together to create a new podcast series, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Education Podcast. Over the coming weeks they’ll be talking about what artificial intelligence is, and what it  could be used for in schools, colleges and universities. It isn’t a technical conversation, but is intended for educators who are interested to learn more about this often discussed technology wave.

With “the robots are coming to steal our (students’) jobs!” being a hot topic of many education conferences (and, at many business conferences too), Dan and Ray have their feet on the ground and spend their time talking about what’s really happening, and what the technical language means in plain English. As we run further into the podcast series, Ray and Dan will talk about scenarios that are more specific to their areas of expertise – Dan’s a schools specialist, and Ray’s a specialist in higher education. And along the way they will also interview specialists in other areas – personalising learning, accessibility – and how artificial intelligence is intersecting with them and bringing innovation.

Your podcast hosts

  • Ray Fleming is the Higher Education Director for Microsoft Australia, and has spent his career working within the education ICT industry. From working with tertiary education organisations at global and national level, Ray brings insights into the rapid pace of change being seen as digital disruption occurs in other industries, and what might happen next in Australia’s universities.
    In the past Ray’s been an award-winning writer, and columnist for the Times Higher Education. He’s also a regular speaker at higher education conferences in Australia on data-led decision making, the implications of AI for the higher education sector and today’s students, and on digital transformation of industries.
  • Dan is a Technology Strategist working with schools and school systems. He has worked in education as a teacher, governor and school inspector. He also worked in higher education as a blended learning advisor, before moving into Microsoft where he was the product manager for Office 365 in Education, STEM education lead and managed the Minecraft portfolio for Australia (to the delight of his kids). In his current role he is working across Azure, Windows and devices and looking to support schools to drive educational transformation. His interest in Artificial Intelligence comes from both the use cases and implementation as well as the education and enablement of IT to drive this technology. He is interested in the social and ethical uses of AI in Education.

You can find the podcast in Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, search in your normal podcast app for “AI in Education”, or listen directly on the podcast website at http://aipodcast.education 

Click here for free STEM resourcesExplore tools for student-centered learning

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Behind the Design: Surface Headphones

Meet the Surface design team who built our first smart headphones

Vivian Nguyen

It’s 2 PM, and you need to finish a project by end of day. Coworkers in your open office space are chatting about the newest ramen spot. While you’d like to expound on the difference between Hokkaido- versus Tokyo-style noodles, you need to focus. You put on your Surface Headphones, and Cortana greets you with a quick update:

“Hi, you’ve got about 8 hours of battery left. You’re connected to [your device name].”

As your favorite Odesza song plays, you start work immediately.

YOUR WORKPLACE ACCOMPANIMENT

Composed with the design trinity of audio quality, comfort, and seamless integration, the Surface Headphones help you create a personal space in the modern workplace and in your modern life. The idea that, when you wear them, you escape into another world that lets you focus on you and what you need to get done. The Surface design team wanted to give you — the actual user — control over how plugged in (or not!) you want to be to your immediate environment. Check out the tech specs here.

And you can see that thoughtful approach in the hardware. Designing comfortable earmuffs was paramount because it’s the one part that touches you all the time. They initially considered a traditional donut shape, but with inclusive design at the heart of everything we do, we wanted to accommodate a diverse set of ear shapes. The earmuffs now fit ears of all shapes and sizes comfortably with even pressure points for a secure fit.

Tactile design wasn’t the only consideration. They set out to craft a device that’s both functional and beautiful. Creating a smooth seam on the earmuff, for example, was surprisingly difficult. See how the team wouldn’t take no for an answer in the video below:

See how the Surface design team wove together elegant hardware design, rich audio, and an intelligent assistant. Click here for the audio description version.

Every decision about the Surface Headphones keeps real people in mind — including the writing they don’t see or touch.

To create a holistic and seamless voice experience, Senior Writer Matt Lichtenberg, who focuses on hardware, and Senior Personality Lead for AI Chris O’Connor, who shapes the voice for intelligent experiences, fused their complementary skills. Because Cortana delivers the instructions, Matt and Chris needed to collaborate and bring together the what (instructions) and the how (Cortana).

“Words contribute to the whole experience,” said Matt, “and we wanted the headphones to be almost invisible to people while they’re wearing them. They shouldn’t have to think about them much.”

“I like to think of it as, we’re helping people achieve more with less energy,” said Chris. “How do they get the most out of this device with the least amount of effort? It’s the idea that design stays out of your way — it’s minimal and there to help you get stuff done.”

THINKING OUT OF THE BOX

From the onset, the design team wanted to understand how people naturally use headphones in a variety of vignettes. They developed a series of scenarios to answer key questions about how people interacted with the headphones.

For instance, when customers initially turn on the headphones, would they want to pair and go? Or would they download the Cortana app first?

As it turns out, most want to pair and go.

When you turn on other Bluetooth devices for the first time, you’ll need to put the device in pairing mode. With the Surface Headphones, they’re immediately in pairing mode and Cortana greets you with, “Hello, you’re ready to pair.”

You connect your device, and Cortana confirms with, “You’re paired to [device name].”

“It’s a challenge to create a rich and enjoyable out-of-the-box experience,” said Chris. “If it’s boring and tedious, people blow right through it. But if it’s enjoyable and people understand the value, they’ll reach an optimal state before carrying on.”

Design is an iterative process, and we’re constantly listening to feedback. We’ve heard customers ask for more device control to turn settings on or off, including the “Hey, Cortana” voice activation, touch controls, and voice prompts. So, we delivered.

The latest firmware update on the Cortana app can help you personalize your headphone settings, like reducing the number or duration of voice prompts. That means you can change your settings so a simple “Hello” plays when you initially turn on your headphones. The app gives you more control of your device, ensuring you get the best experience possible.

“It’s amazing how long it feels to say a few words, so you need to make them count,” said Matt.

Unlike computers, which require constant interaction, the Surface Headphones almost disappear into the background while you work, helping you focus while eliminating outside distractions. To help people achieve this, the voice writing team designed the voice prompts to avoid interruptions unless they’re critical, like letting you know when your battery is low.

“How do you thread the needle between being a voice prompt, a robot, and a conversational entity, but still get out of the way?” asked Chris. “This was one of the first areas where we had to practice design differently and pull back on personality to allow things to be shorter and faster.”

COMMUNICATING WITHOUT WORDS

Some interactions don’t even need words.

When the headphones are charging, for example, the LED light flashes. In this context, a visual cue is more intuitive. You don’t need to pick them up or put them on to know what’s happening.

In times when words feel unnatural, sound itself can communicate information. When you turn the left dial on the Surface Headphones forward, you hear a low-pitched beep to indicate maximum noise cancellation. Conversely, a high-pitched beep plays when you turn the dial in the opposite direction. This confirms the headphones are now amplifying ambient sound.

Inspired by the volume knobs of hi-fi stereos, which turn with a certain slowness, the hardware design team added headset dials to adjust volume, noise cancellation, or sound amplification. Rotating the dial is an intuitive motion that lets people choose the precise level of sound they want (or don’t want).

Our design anticipates different modes of communication contingent on how someone wants to use or interact with the headphones. But whether it’s audio or visual, each interaction remains succinct.

THE NEXT MOVEMENT IN VOICE DESIGN

The Surface Headphones are the first ambient device from Microsoft with an assistant. The Surface design team had a groundbreaking opportunity to radically reimagine headphones as more than just headphones.

In the past, people often confused or conflated digital assistants with voice control. But with increased investments in personality design and the future of interaction, Microsoft is experimenting with giving Cortana added dimension and awareness to help customers get the most out of a digital assistant.

“We decided to use the human metaphor for a digital assistant, because a real-life assistant isn’t just voice control. They don’t just take dictation. They understand what’s important to you, your family, your priorities, your goals,” explained Chris.

As we continue to infuse intelligence across our products and services, teams throughout the company are beginning to explore the potential for what a digital assistant could be.

“The headphones sparked a whole new area of thinking — one that we’re using to think through the same problem from other endpoints as we move on to work for the Office 365 apps,” said Chris.

And who knows? Maybe one day, when you slip on your Surface Headphones, Cortana can chime in with her favorite kind of ramen, too.

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Author: Microsoft News Center

New VR Garage project Microgravity Lab takes students to space – Microsoft Garage

Virtual reality can transport us to new lands that are near, far, or imagined. As a team of Garage interns found partnering with the Microsoft Hacking STEM and NASA Stem on Station teams, it can also demonstrate physics concepts and spark an interest in STEM careers. For the back-to-school season, we’re excited to announce the opportunity to try Microgravity Lab, a Microsoft Garage project. The VR experience for Windows Mixed Reality and corresponding lesson plan equip teachers with an engaging tool for teaching physics concepts by simulating microgravity. Interested educators can request an invite to try the VR application and corresponding lesson plans. Be sure to include your school name and plan for using the application into the form.

Bringing space into the classroom via Windows Mixed Reality

The Garage Internship is a unique, startup-style program in which teams of interns build projects in response to pitched challenges by Microsoft engineering teams. When this Vancouver intern team heard that the Microsoft Education team was looking for a creative new method way to illustrate the concept of microgravity through VR, they jumped at the opportunity to work on the project.

Microgravity Lab title screen, displaying 5 different expeiences, settings, and other options.An often-misunderstood concept, microgravity is difficult to simulate and understand in Earth’s gravity-laden environment. It is best explained through experiential learning. The Microgravity Lab VR lab experience for Windows Mixed Reality and its accompanying lessons gives teachers the tools to bring this experiential learning to their students.

As NASA Education Specialist Matthew E. Wallace shared, “The concept of microgravity is often misunderstood by students who learn about astronauts on the International Space Station. Providing a virtual reality world for them to explore the phenomena of life on orbit is an excellent way to engage students and solidify their comprehension of concepts related to force, mass and gravitational acceleration.”

Sabrina Ng, Design Intern for the project noted, “When I think of microgravity, I think of it as something you feel, not what you see per se. Thinking about how to visualize and communicate such an abstract concept without stimulating the physical senses was a really cool challenge.”

Microgravity Lab joins a collection of eight middle school lesson plans developed in partnership with NASA to celebrate 20 years of humans living in and working on the International Space Station.

Experiencing microgravity to understand Newton’s 2nd & 3rd Law

Microgravity Lab is designed for grades 6-8. Students can explore three VR modules to understand these physics principles in the context of microgravity on the moon:

  • Conservation of momentum
  • Newton’s 2nd Law
  • Newton’s 3rd Law

The team worked closely with teachers to develop the project, testing early versions of Microgravity Lab with 7th and 8th grade classes. They refined and updated the experienced based on the classroom feedback.

Implementing feedback from teachers and students, the interns added a feature to enable live Microgravity data analysis via Excel. “This project gives students the experience and the fun aspects of VR, but with Excel, we found a way to expose them to Data Analysis. Data is a very important part of our world and this is a great way to introduce it to them,” shared Rébecca Vézina-Côté, the Program Manager Intern for Microgravity Lab.

Introducing space into the classroom via Windows Mixed Reality

Hacking STEM to engage students

Microgravity Lab joins the Hacking STEM portfolio. The portfolio is created by teachers for teachers to offer hands-on, inquiry-driven, real-world lesson plans. The standards-aligned, interdisciplinary lessons lesson plans teach 21st century technical skills in the context of existing curricula. The Hacking STEM portfolio now includes 22 middle and high school lesson plans built by teachers for teachers on topics ranging from circuits and robotic hands to learning how sharks swim, and now, microgravity.

“There are companies moving towards commercializing space travel and package delivery, a project like this might give students an idea of what life might be like on a space station, and hopefully inspire them to want to go further with it and see it as a future path for them as an area of interest or a future career,” shared Adrian Pang, a Software Engineer Intern with the project.

The Microgravity Lab experience makes science more engaging and introduces these concepts to students in a way that inspires lifelong learning and passionate curiosity about the world around them.

The impact of VR in the classroom

Microgravity lab team photoThe Microsoft Education team has provided materials to enable a seamless introduction of VR to the classroom. When immersive technologies are deployed correctly and in a pedagogically consistent manner, they have the potential to support and expand curriculum, enhancing learning outcomes in ways that haven’t been previously affordable or scalable. Read more in this white paper detailing the impact of VR in the classroom.

Based on their own experience learning VR and Windows Mixed Reality, Garage interns have suggestions on how teachers can get started with VR. “Windows Mixed Reality does a great job of walking users through setting up the headset, then it’s just finding the app on the Microsoft Store, downloading it and installing it,” shared Rébecca. Crystal Song, another Software Engineering Intern continues, “I’d encourage teachers and school administrators to not see the tech as just a toy, but something that can teach. VR has a unique ability to teach through discovery, so allowing space and time for students to explore is key.”

James Burke, a longtime Hacking STEM developer partner who worked with the interns to test the project, encourages fellow educators to think outside the box to engage and challenge students. “Kids can do a lot more than people give them credit for.” In Burke’s engineering lab at Tyee Middle School, students work on project-based learning modules that can resemble college-level multidisciplinary assignments. With future-ready equipment and real-world projects to tackle, his award-winning classroom engages with students at every level. VR is just another way to spark that passion in students.

Request an invitation to try the project

To get started with Microgravity Lab for your classroom, request an invite to try the VR application. Include your school name and plan for using the application into the form.

More lesson plans and classroom materials are available at the Hacking STEM website.

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Author: Microsoft News Center