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Microsoft’s hackathon isn't just about fixing the world's problems

Microsoft, taking a page from other tech companies, is hosting a hackathon to get employees thinking creatively again. Here’s what that looks like from inside.

James Martin/CNET

Asta Roseway wants to rethink touch-based computing. Her idea starts with temporary tattoos.

The way it would work is you stick a temporary tattoo anywhere on your body. The tattoo, a gold leaf that can come in any shape or artistic pattern, uses a mix of electrical currents and Bluetooth connections to become pretty much anything from a light switch to a musical instrument.

Now playing: Watch this: Microsoft searches for new ideas in its summer hackathon

"Think of next generation bands or musicians, or even dancers who want to play music during a performance," she said while I touched the keyboard keys on a mannequin arm and heard a piano playing out of a speaker next to it.

But she sees so much more potential. She talks of everything from controlling lights to new types of medical sensors that track your vital signs. "We can send signals to anywhere," she said.


The gold leaf tattoos are just one of the wacky tech projects thousands of Microsoft employees worked on.

James Martin/CNET

Roseway, a principle research designer who's worked at Microsoft for two decades, was working with a team she'd attracted from across Microsoft to work with her during a three-day hackathon. The event, which has been held at the company for the past five years, is the brainchild of Satya Nadella, who took over as the tech giant's CEO in 2014.

It's not just a chance for people to make nifty tech, though there's plenty of that. It's also part of his plan to change employees' thinking about how to build products at the world's largest software maker.

During an unusually warm day in late July, Roseway and her team are working at long tables covered with electronics, computers and snacks in one of the two 45,885-square-foot tents set up for the meetup. The group next to her is working tools to help people with poor eyesight play video games. Other teams are hacking together tools to help homeless shelters, cities and counties plan and respond to surging needs.

"This opens up the door," Roseway said. "This is why we're here."

The idea of a hackathon is diabolically simple: take the hundreds of ideas employees would otherwise scrawl on a napkin or file away in the back of their head -- or give up on before they even began -- and give them a chance to turn those ideas into something more. It's like Shark Tank, but for ideas. Which is why hackathons are now so so popular they've become standard procedure inside the tech industry and outside of it too. Facebook has hackathons, as does Google. NASA has a hackathon. CNET hosts one every year as well.   

Microsoft says it holds the largest private annual hackathon in the world during One Week, an annual gathering created by Nadella to get everyone on the same page and inform their thinking in the year ahead. The hackathon is just one part of the week: there's a science fair, a nonprofit fair and question-and-answer sessions with Microsoft's leadership. It's a long way from the famous organizational chart drawn by a cartoonist in 2011, depicting Microsoft's divisions as warring gangs, each pointing guns at one another.

Nadella has invited us to see the hackathon for ourselves as part a look into the cultural changes he's made since taking over. More than 23,500 employees worldwide in 46 different venues (including the company's HQ in Redmond) participated this year and worked on thousands of projects. It isn't just an opportunity to foster collaboration between teams, though each group we saw had members from the company's engineering, finance, operations and consumer divisions.  

It takes a lot of work to even come up with a basic demo.

James Martin/CNET

"When we talk about our mission of empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, it can't be just a set of words. It has to in some sense capture the very essence of who we are in all of the decisions we make, in the products we create and how we show up with our customers," Nadella said in an interview after touring the two the hackathon in July.  "It has to, in some sense, capture the very essence of who we are in all of the decisions we make, in the products we create and how we show up with our customers."

One hackathon project actually makes its way to being pitched to the CEO, while there are award winners in several categories, including one that focuses on accessibility The list of successful projects include Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller, a $99 device launching this year that helps disabled gamers play on the Xbox game console and Windows PCs. There's tech invented to help dyslexics read more easily, which has since been integrated into much of Microsoft's software. Those Learning Tools have shown stunning results: one boy, Nadella wrote in his 2017 book Hit Refresh, went from reading six words per minute to 27 words per minute in a matter of weeks.

Another hackathon team created tech that lets people control a wheelchair with their gaze. It's been turned into an entire set of features on Microsoft's Windows software powering hundreds of millions of PCs, including allowing you to log into your computer merely by looking at it.

"We are in a time, in 2018, when technology's so pervasive in our lives, in our economies, in our societies," Nadella says. "I think time has come, quite frankly, for us to really have the dialogue and the question to be asked as well as answered as to what are the real benefits of technology, equitably spread?"

Tech for good

Back inside the tent, one team is building technology to help people use their Xbox video game console to guide them through different types of therapy, such as recovering from sports injuries.

"For parents who might have to take their kids back and forth for visits, they don't actually do a lot of exercises at home, and so they're not getting the betterment of themselves," said Megan Gustafson Melloy, who normally works on Microsoft's operations team but who's helping to lead this project.  

Her team wondered whether Microsoft's Xbox could help by providing an easier way for app developers to create therapeutic balls and gloves, as well as games to encourage people to do exercises at home. After all, the Xbox is already a platform for games and controllers; Why not more?

Roseway got to show Nadella demonstrations of her gold leaf tattoos, painted onto mannequin parts. The excitement she sees at Microsoft's hackathons is the best example of how much the company is changing. She adds that collaborative projects like her tattoos wouldn't even have been discussed a few years ago.

"This feels like, collectively, we're building toward more creativity," she says. "It's a wonderful thing."

First published, Aug. 21 at 10:44 p.m. PT.
Update, Aug. 22 at 10:06 a.m. PT: Adds video.

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