As Microsoft and much of the computer industry rush to a services-based infrastructure, a crucial piece of the puzzle is often forgotten: the user interface (UI). In .NET terminology, the UI is called the User Experience (UE) because it encompasses more than just an application or OS's look and feel. Microsoft knows that .NET must integrate with today's environments in such a way that the end-to-end experience is logical, attractive, and worth the upgrade.

As is often the case with Microsoft's new products, the company's largely unheralded research division (unsurprisingly dubbed Microsoft Research) is working on the .NET UE. Microsoft Research is responsible for much of the company's most impressive technology, such as Word's on-the-fly grammar checker, the Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video (WMV) codecs, and Outlook and Outlook Express' junk-mail filters. The division is working on several far-reaching technologies (e.g., 3-D and natural interfaces) that will find their way into various Microsoft products. But none of these technologies are as important to the company's immediate future as .NET.

Microsoft Research refers to .NET's UE as the Natural User Interface, or NUI. The acronym, which the division pronounces "Nooey," is a play on GUI ("Gooey," short for graphical user interface), which is the type of UI most computers have used since the mid-1980s. The NUI will eventually employ an on-screen avatar, or miniature Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), that uses speech when possible to interact with you, thus making the interface to .NET services more natural than today's keyboard and mouse.

Bill Gates first publicly demonstrated such an on-screen character during his 1994 Comdex keynote address, "Information at Your Fingertips." In subsequent speeches, Gates demonstrated "Office of the Future," a future version of Microsoft Office that uses a small animated character that works in the background to get information (e.g., find opera tickets), then reports back to you. The character works with other users' avatars to book appointments and set up your schedule.

For .NET's UE, Microsoft Research is taking a more realistic approach than Gates' futuristic scenario in 1994. The company realizes that .NET will take computing beyond the PC, so the UE must be scalable to work on PDAs (e.g., the Microsoft Pocket PC), smart cell phones, TV set-top boxes, and other devices. The UE will also need to leverage the skills people gained from using PCs for decades. Finally, the interface must be more natural than a keyboard and mouse.

Speech recognition is key to the NUI. For most people, nothing is more natural than speech. Many companies have long had the goal of giving computing devices the ability to communicate through speech. However, computer speech recognition and synthesis technology aren't yet to the level of natural communication that people expect, so Microsoft will phase in this feature as the technology improves.

At Microsoft's 10-year anniversary celebration for Microsoft Research last week, Speech .NET evangelist John Dehlin demonstrated his product's ability to speech-enable Web sites and OSs, giving users a way to more naturally interact with a computer. He showed a real-estate Web application that you could use voice input to control. For example, you might describe the features you'd like in a house, and the Web application would display a list of homes that met your criteria. The feature worked from Pocket PC devices and Web pads, not just from a powerful PC.

In approximately 10 years, Microsoft expects .NET to adopt vision-based technology that uses a series of small cameras to determine where a user is focused, then respond appropriately. If a user is looking at the PC and speaking, for example, .NET will assume the user is interacting with the system. But if the user looks away and addresses another person, the technology will realize the user isn't interacting with the system, and .NET won't attempt to perform an incorrect action. One of Bill Gates' keynote addresses highlighted this technology, as well as a mood-sensing feature. After Gates sent a nasty email to another user, his avatar confronted him and told him, "Bob received your email. And he seemed very hurt by it." The avatar then suggested ways in which the users could smooth out the situation.

Such developments take time, of course, and Microsoft Research admits that the full .NET UE is still years away. But the UE will extend far beyond today's GUI, into a world in which computer devices integrate more naturally into our lives. For more information about Microsoft Research and the division's work on .NET, go to http://research.microsoft.com.