The Microsoft Technology Center joins others across the world as a place where corporate customers can see demonstrations of Microsoft’s business products and try them out.
On the ground floor of Bellevue Square mall, customers can play with Microsoft’s latest video-gaming gadgets or take the latest Windows personal computers for a test drive.
Across the street, and 22 stories up, Microsoft’s business customers are about to get their own shopping experience.
The Redmond company on Wednesday is set to open a Microsoft Technology Center in Bellevue, a location that joins 40 other sales-focused facilities that Microsoft operates from Singapore to Boston.
The spaces offer business and government clients customized demonstrations of Microsoft products and opportunities to try out new tools. The Bellevue location, at the Lincoln Square tower, also offers sweeping views of the Seattle skyline and, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Baker.
Microsoft previously routed interested business customers through its Redmond campus, before deciding this year to build a more specialized space.
Mark Perry, the director of the facility, said the goal is less hawking Microsoft products, and more helping inform customers of what’s possible with the range of technologies the company offers.
“Our sales teams are great at telling customers our (products’) features and capabilities,” he said. “But we actually show it here.”
Beginning with a Silicon Valley outpost in the early 2000s, Microsoft built a network of such showcase venues that have evolved along with Microsoft’s ambitions.
Amid a stagnant personal-computer market hampering Microsoft’s giant Windows and Office franchises, the company is keen to advertise its aims to move toward cloud-computing, the technological shift that has many businesses opting to rent software and processing power from the likes of Amazon.com and Microsoft rather than use their own servers.
Microsoft’s range of corporate-focused offerings, including wonky products like server software and data-crunching tools, don’t lend themselves to the tidy packaging found at the likes of Bellevue Square’s Microsoft Store. In many cases, getting started with those business products requires a hand from Microsoft or one of the company’s network of software resellers.
A staff of about 10 technologists and salespeople is on hand at the technology center in Bellevue to help with that. The 18,000-square-foot space features a large demonstration room — or “envisioning center” in Microsoft parlance — designed to show how Microsoft software can be used in a variety of settings, from home to office to retail space.
There’s also a 100-person conference room, which Perry says is built to house large contingents like a visiting Boeing information-technology team. Five racks of servers hum in an interior room, offering potential customers the ability to simulate running their own data centers or experiment with products from Microsoft’s cloud.
Unlike at Microsoft’s network of retail stores, though, not just anyone can walk in off the street. The centers are open, by appointment, to large business and government customers that deal directly with Microsoft’s sales staff. Workshops and events are open to the public.
Microsoft’s technology centers tend to be tailored to the local industry. A new Houston outpost, opened early this year, caters to the oil and gas business, while a New York facility is focused on financial services, and Minneapolis, home to Target and Best Buy, touts retail.
Perry said the Bellevue center aims a bit broader, reflecting the diverse business community in the Puget Sound region. Areas of focus include health care, manufacturing and retail.
The goal, Perry says, is to tailor demonstrations for what a customer might need, “so they actually leave here with a plan to go do it.”
Understanding what’s being said
Microsoft says its researchers are one step closer to building software that understands speech as well as humans do.
Researchers at the Redmond company say their conversational speech-recognition system, in an industry benchmark test, has achieved a word error rate of just 6.3 percent.
IBM recently touted an error rate of 6.6 percent, Microsoft said. Just a few years ago, the technology industry couldn’t do better than a 10 percent error rate.
Software that can fully understand human speech, some technologists say, will enable a next generation of interaction with machines, one that doesn’t require a keyboard, mouse or touch.
Early examples of that are in the limited tasks people can ask digital assistants to perform, like searching the web with Google’s Now, asking Microsoft’s Cortana to make a calendar appointment, or prompting Amazon.com’s Alexa to turn on music.
Microsoft says its progress was aided by the use of deep neural networks, or software inspired by the brain’s wiring that is better able to detect patterns in speech. Another component, it says, is using powerful graphics-processing units, originally designed for high-performance computer graphics for video games and other applications, to speed up the algorithms that underlie speech recognition.
“This new milestone benefited from a wide range of new technologies developed by the (artificial intelligence) community from many different organizations over the past 20 years,” Xuedong Huang, Microsoft’s chief speech scientist, said in a blog post.
The research, by Huang and seven others, was published Tuesday.
— Matt Day