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The Tech Giants Shaping Our World Part 3 : Microsoft


December 1974. Paul Allen, a 21-year-old college dropout, purchased the latest issue of hobbyist magazine Popular Electronics from a newsstand in Harvard Square and ran six blocks to the college. At Harvard College, Paul found his close friend Bill Gates and handed him the magazine.The two had long desired writing an operating program using the BASIC computer language, but Bill wanted to hold off until someone had developed a computer with a fast processor. The moment they had been waiting for had arrived. On this day, Microsoft was born.

Microsoft went on to become the world’s number one software provider for over thirty years. 90% of all computers on the planet run a version of Windows OS, and the company’s workforce has as many employees as the population of Jersey. However, the company’s success became somewhat turbulent at the turn of the millennium. Plagued with internal knife-fights and a slew of questionable managerial decisions, Microsoft had lost its way among the rising influence of rival tech firms. Despite this, Microsoft still retains an undeniable influence over not only the computer industry, but our world.

Like our other tech giants in this series, their presence extends beyond that of computers. However, there is one particular arena where Microsoft is staking its claim. In 2010, the company launched a peripheral for their Xbox gaming console that utilised motion-sensor technology. It wasn’t that long ago when gesture-based technology was limited to laboratories and sci-fi films, but that technology is here. It is called the Kinect, and its use extends far beyond the realm of gaming.

The Kinect is an innovative combination of cameras, microphones and software that essentially turns your body into a video game controller. It uses something called point-cloud technology, which consists of projecting points of infrared light to construct three-dimensional images. The device is so accurate that it can lip read, so it’s no wonder why the technology is being adopted for military purposes.

Yes, the military. It may sound like war is becoming more like a game of Call of Duty, but the Kinect technology is so advanced that it transcends gaming peripherals. Along the borders of North and South Korea, the Kinect is being used a surveillance tool.

Over two miles wide and 160 miles long, the Korean DMZ is an uninhabited no-man’s land. It is an area laden with fortified fences, landmines and listening posts of two nations that remain at war. Despite the security measures in place, in 2012 a defecting North Korean soldier simply walked across the border undetected and rapped on the door of a guard post. The incident came at a time when the South Korean army was supposedly on high alert due to rising military tensions with the North. Unlike CCTV, the Kinect can actually determine the difference between animals and humans and since the incident; it has been employed to patrol the border.

The technology’s capability for military use does not stop at surveillance, mind. Post-injury war veterans now use the Kinect as a tool for rehabilitation. The affordability of the device means that it is far cheaper for the user in comparison to numerous hospital visits. At present, the Kinect is used with ReMotion360 physical therapy software, which scans the user’s body and asks them to mimic the figure on-screen.

Furthermore, and likely closer to what players may experience in flight simulators, is that the Kinect is being used to control aircraft. Although the concept is still in its infancy, the US Army has been considering “Minority Report”-style virtual displays for the next generation of flight cockpits. Using the Kinect as a platform, the technology will help pilots to identify targets and even monitor the physical and health levels of an individual.

It would seem, at least for now, that Microsoft has turned the page. No longer looking at what it did wrong in the past, but what it can do right for the future. No more controversies. No more internal conflicts. No more foolish decisions.

Wars in the real world are inevitable. They have shaped our world since the dawn of time. While bravery may take you to the most dangerous of places, a technological advantage may see you safely through them. Microsoft will continue to fight its own wars against rivals in the cut-throat technology industry. However, ensuring that the brave men and women that protect the rest of us are in safe hands themselves has arguable the biggest impact on the world we live in.