When art imitates reality

,

On a Saturday in January, developers, artists, producers, writers, designers, allies and advocates gathered to talk about the value of diverse characters in video games. At the front of the room, six expert panelists working in development fielded questions on the demand for representation, where to focus early efforts and the hard truths about getting it right.

“We’ve come to a point where people want to move forward,” noted Melissa Boone, Xbox Senior Researcher. “We’re seeing people respond in a way that they never really have before.”

Cherry Rae, an accessibility advocate and consultant agreed. “[Video games] are escapism with reality checks. They can teach, they can help us evolve, they can help us learn things about ourselves that we didn’t realize.”

Joining Melissa and Cherry on the panel were Narrative Director at WB Games Montreal – Ann Lemay, Franchise Narrative Lead at The Coalition – Bonnie Jean Mah, and Art Director at Phoenix Labs – Katie De Sousa.

Games are arguably more immersive than movies or books. They pull the player in and provide an opportunity to experience something new. They’re persuasive. And as Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility.

“It’s important that we are aware of the power we hold as creators, and the impact we can have on our audience,” explained Lemay. “We have had people stand up at events and say – thank you for acknowledging I exist – because they don’t see themselves in traditional media.”

The fact is diverse representation makes good businesses sense. It can draw more people to a game and drive increased revenue. It also reflects reality. Build a more complex, relatable world, and you’ll have more interesting avenues for storytelling.

The shift towards better representation can begin simply, with research. Industry leaders and advocates are already talking about the need for diversity in articles, interviews and conferences, most of which are recorded these days. The work is available and often free. Hiring consultants and building diverse internal teams were also recommended. The panelists noted that individuals working on the game can provide a much-needed pulse check. And then, there’s the players themselves. Curious about what they want to see? Ask them.

“I went on twitter and asked – what are you sick of seeing in a character creator, are there any barriers in how you represent yourself,” recalled De Souza. ”The answer was, don’t make me choose a male or female, just let me pick my own pronoun the same way I pick a body type.”

And while it’s best to get that feedback at the start of the development cycle, the panel called out that it’s just at critical at the end. Their advice…engage QA and the Community Team early and often. They’ll catch things along the way and can give both designers and developers a better understanding of who’s playing and what they’re saying. And then…test everything.

“You don’t need a fancy lab to do usability testing. You need something to take notes on, a person to play your game and your actual game. That’s pretty much it,” noted Boone. “Watch them. Think a lot as they play it. Take notes. Don’t say much. The fancy stuff just adds a couple extra tools.”

As the talk went on and questions were asked, actionable tips emerged. A single representation won’t give you much room to develop character (think stereotypes and clichés), so build a diverse world where background characters offer additional depth. Consider reversing the pipeline – there will always be budget and time to create a male character. Be positive about the work. There will be negative comments, you’ve got to have respect for the audience and stand up with everyone in the industry trying to make it better. Also, expect to get it wrong. There will always be someone who says, that doesn’t represent me.

“Have faith in the stories you’re telling,” Mah explains. “We need to do our part to question what we’re putting out there and if we believe it’s the right story to tell, we can weather any criticism.”

The event was championed by The Coalitions Women in Gaming Co-Leads Rose Gunson, Esports Creative Program Manager and Zoe Curnoe, Lead Campaign Producer Gears 5 and moderated by Carolina Smith, Senior Producer of Creative Services. Women in Gaming is a community of women from Team Xbox dedicated to leading the gaming industry forward by growing, attracting and retaining women in the games industry. The Coalition will release Gears 5 this year, with Kait Diaz as the lead character.


Making the LEAP

,

When you’ve been out of the workforce for a few years, coming back is hard. But it doesn’t have to be. In 2017, we adapted a program available in Redmond to create new opportunities for engineers, designers, and VFX artists in Vancouver. Called LEAP, it immerses candidates into our teams and helps them refresh their skills.

Aline Caillaud and her husband Cedric moved to Canada in 2010. Having worked as a software engineer in Singapore and in her home country of France, she wrestled with a big decision – look for work or stay home and help her young family adjust to a new country with a new language.

“My kids spoke a little bit of English, but I wanted to be there for them in the beginning. Then one year became two, and before I knew it, eight years had passed.”

Starting with a few online courses, Aline began thinking about returning to work. Studying at home offered flexibility, but it was harder to focus. There were always other things around the house that needed to get done and there was nobody to ask if you had a question. So, when her husband learned about a new program at work, she applied.

“It was the right time for me,” she explained. “It was hard. But, being around people who want to help you, and being completely immersed in something instead of alone at home made all the difference.”

LEAP candidates are matched to a team and assigned a buddy.

“Having someone to guide you, it’s super important,” noted Aline. “When I came onto the team, I wasn’t like any other engineer. I wasn’t just coming to work at a different company, I was starting over with a new programming language.”

After completing her contract, Aline learned that she’d landed a full-time permanent position with her team.

The success of the first candidate provided a springboard for growth. This year, there were three new LEAP positions available and Roberta Albuquerque snagged one of them. Having been out of the workforce for eighteen months, she’d been dropping in to industry events to meet people and explore opportunities in Vancouver. At a WomenHack event early in the year, Roberta made a connection that would eventually lead her to apply for LEAP.

“It was hard in the beginning, but I’m more comfortable now. I know more about the company and the job and the team,” she shared. “I just want to learn everything that I can.”

Roberta joined a team in transition, which eased her return to engineering.

“The project I’m working on is very different from the work I’ve done in the past, but it was new for everyone on the team, so we’re learning together. I think it was good, because I didn’t feel so lost.”

And while she completes the LEAP program in February, Roberta isn’t thinking about what comes next.

“I’m not concerned about the end. I’m focused on doing my best. When it’s over, I’d definitely like to stay here, but right now, I’m concerned only with being comfortable in the environment.”

Aline, Roberta and the other LEAP candidates meet every month to share tips and resources and talk about the challenges they’re having. They also attend events and networking sessions to connect more broadly with others in the industry.

“Coming back, you’re facing issues that the others around you may not necessarily have,” explained Aline. “When you get an opportunity to talk to the others in the program, it’s good. When I was struggling, they were having the same challenges, and it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one.”

 

Pictured Above: Roberta Albuquerque, Software Engineer / Aline Caillaud, Software Engineer / Annita Chow, Project Manager / Angela Ubeda, VFX Artist

New LEAP positions will be available in 2019.
Keep an eye on our Careers page or follow us on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


Tech education and literacy in schools comes to BC

,

My kids were in school today, hopefully paying attention to their teacher, while I stood in a classroom a few blocks away, side by side with people who are committed to advancing their future.

It was high school teacher / software engineer at Microsoft, Kevin Wang, who created the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program, or TEALS. The program pairs computer science volunteers from the tech industry with teachers in the classroom and I had the opportunity to see it officially launched in Canada this morning.

TEALS exists because the need for it exists. While we’re all committed to computer science and computational thinking in the classroom, not every teacher is ready to teach it. To fill the gap, TEALS brings industry volunteers together with classroom teachers to equip them with the knowledge they need to adapt. It’s an opportunity to grow computer science teaching capacity in the classroom now, while up-skilling educators for a future that will see technology become part of everything we do and every industry that their students will work in one day.

This school year marks the first TEALS classrooms outside the U.S. and I could not be prouder to have that expansion happening here in British Columbia. Four high schools, Burnaby South Secondary, Handsworth Secondary, John Oliver Secondary and Killarney Secondary began team-teaching computer science in September and today, I met two of the teachers, some of the volunteers and a classroom of students who are excited about the possibilities that it brings.

These four schools are joining almost 500 across the United States already participating in TEALS serving 12,000 students, and our team of volunteers is just the beginning. We anticipate expanding the program next year to support up to 12 schools, including at least one in a rural community. All going well, we anticipate 25 the year after. It’s something I’ve been working towards for the last few years and seeing it come together was everything I’d hoped.

My kids, and the generation that they are part of, have never known an analog world. They see things differently than we do. They have the power to push us further into the digital era and shape the future in responsible ways. Having this education, up front, will give them the foundation they need to change the world.

So today, I’d like to say thank you to the school administrators who have trusted us to join your classrooms and to the teachers who are diving in headfirst to make this happen. I’d also like to commend the two dozen volunteers who signed up, did months of training and are now in these schools every week. Their passion is remarkable and strongly supported by the companies that make it possible for them to take time away from their work to do this – ACL, Amazon, Apple, Broadcom, Electronic Arts, Hyperwallet, Kabam, SAP, Stryker and my own team here at Microsoft. Finally, I’d like to call out BCIT for their partnership with TEALS in BC, providing curriculum alignment and ongoing support of TEALS in BC. When we, industry and educators, come together, anything is possible.

Edoardo De Martin
General Manager, Microsoft Vancouver


Hacking the Future

,

More than 300 Vancouver employees participated in Microsoft’s annual global hackathon last week. It was an opportunity to set aside our regular work to explore, experiment and innovate. And, it was epic.

For three days, teams hacked in mixed reality, AI, gaming, VR, machine learning and more. They tackled everything from advancing employee workflow to holographic interfaces that could help us learn new skills. They hacked projects that build an inclusive environment, projects that drove social impact, projects that created opportunities to amplify human ingenuity. In short, they stepped outside the box.

This was the sixth year for the global hackathon, and the third for us here in Vancouver. It marks a shift in our culture and a commitment to a way of working that encourages trial and error, an openness to change and ultimately a growth mindset. And it’s not all about creating code. Collaboration plays a huge part.

We had teams in Vancouver that included people from different product groups who would not otherwise have the opportunity to work together. One group included engineers and designers from our mixed reality, Gears of War video game and machine learning teams, as well as a sales rep from our Pacific Centre retail store downstairs. This is what happens when passion for technology and an opportunity to be experimental converge.

Behind all of this was an amazing event, led by our Microsoft Garage team in Vancouver. Stacey Mulcahy and Cody Church pulled out all the stops to entertain and engage employees with a comfortable lounge space, a custom-built arcade cabinet and a bunch of activities during the week. Our Garage Internship team also helped out, hosting a mapping event for the Red Cross and organizing the science fair that closed out the week.

Now that the hackathon is over, and we’ve returned to our regular cadence, there is still work to be done. Some projects will live on, possibly becoming viable products. Others will inspire future work. And a few will fade away. But every one of them had impact. We’re better programmers, better designers, better creators and better collaborators.

Thank you to everyone who participated in Hackathon 2018. I can’t wait to see what you make next.

Edoardo De Martin
Director, Microsoft Vancouver


Decoding micro-expressions with NeuroPi

,

“My thinking was, what I do well is take on large, squirly projects that have complexity to them and — make things happen.”

It was just days after the neurodiversity hackathon at Microsoft Vancouver and Gregor Noriskin, Principal Software Engineer Lead for Microsoft News, was trying to decide which project he wanted to dive deeper into. The decision was hard. They all had merits, they all could make a difference, they were all going to be personal.

“The Neurodiversity Hackathon was a motivational turning point for me. My son got his official Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis just days before it, and after working with a few of the teams there, I left thinking that I would throw myself into one project,” he recalls. “But, I wanted to do them all and explore the best possible outcomes for my son.”

Gregor reached out to a fellow hacker from the event, and together, they mapped out potential projects that could drive awareness of ASD and create safer spaces for those on the spectrum. Within weeks they’d chosen a direction and started the groundwork for their device, called NeuroPi.

“The goal of the project is to build a wearable device that can detect another person’s emotional state – where they might be angry, frustrated or otherwise signaling you in a way that is non-verbal,” explains Gregor. “This is something that an individual on the autism spectrum may miss.”

The prototype clips to a backpack or can be worn like jewelry. It has a camera, an off-the-shelf Raspberry Pi and a rumble motor cannibalized from an old Xbox controller for haptic feedback. Using Azure Cognitive Services, it’s their hope that the device will be able to detect emotion through micro-expressions and then deliver a rumble that informs the wearer.

A micro-expression is a brief, involuntary facial expression tied to the emotion being experienced. They happen fast, in as little as 1/25 of a second. As a non-verbal clue to reading a person or situation, they are an essential part of human interaction.

“We register micro-expressions subconsciously. It’s something we sense more than see and then we adjust our interaction accordingly,” explains Gregor. “But an individual on the spectrum may not notice or respond to them.”

The hope is that the device would capture them, identify them and then be able to increase the intensity of the rumble to match the intensity of the detected emotion.

“If you go broad, the things that can come out of it, will,” he notes. “For me, success would be the ability to measure anger, contempt, and disgust, because that’s when an individual with ASD may be most vulnerable to misreading a situation and experiencing a consequence.

While the global hackathon provides much needed time for experimentation, regular visits to The Garage have been a critical piece in Gregor’s early work on NeuroPi. With Stacey’s help and access to hardware, he learned how to design and build the parts, including a 3D-printed enclosure and electronic circuits to control the rumble motors. He’s also had the opportunity to expand his software engineering skills.

“I’ve been writing code for many years, and used many languages and APIs, but when it comes to data science and machine learning, my experience was limited. We went with the Raspberry Pi running Raspbian, so I’m learning that, and we’re using Python, OpenCV and Cognitive Services,” Gregor explains. “This project has also provided me with a platform to engage a number of people in the company and in the community.”

This project is the beginning of a lot of different things, including the creation of a brain trust of people who are passionate, interested and motivated. As Gregor dug into it, he realized how many people care about advancing awareness for neurodiversity and finding solutions for those with ASD. It’s something Gregor sees as a defining element in Microsoft’s DNA.

“Microsoft is a good place to do this because we live our values. Despite its size, the company has an ethical and moral backbone that is maintained,” he notes. “I’ve seen people come here and it changes them, we have a corporate culture that makes us better human beings.”

While the hackathon wraps up this week, NeuroPi will continue. There’s more research to be done and so much more is possible.

“As I’ve gotten into this neurodiversity space, I’ve become more aware that a lot of kids today who are in every other way ‘typical’ do not necessarily understand emotionality. EQ appears to be diminishing, and there are a lot of questions around why that is,” notes Gregor. “Is it an environmental thing? Is it because they are spending more time interacting through devices instead of directly with each other? We don’t know.”

At the end of the day, his goal is awareness — across industry, academics, service providers and for parents like him who’s children receive a complicated diagnosis and who worry about the future.

“The hackathon is sort of a coming out for my project, where I can stand next to this little device and say, this is my story. Frankly, it’s what I’d like to do with the rest of my career.”


Vancouver interns help BC Cancer researchers visualize tumours

, ,

It’s not your average internship.

Last week, a group of university students had the opportunity to stand alongside researchers from BC Cancer and showcase the work they’ve partnered on. The project was pitched in January and marks the first time we’ve had two teams from our Garage Internship program work concurrently on the same initiative. Here’s what I can tell you about the Holographic Cancer Cell Visualizer.

Fueled by advances in molecular biology, genomics and computer science, researchers at BC Cancer, Dr. Samuel Aparicio, Dr. Sohrab Shah and their colleagues, are applying a new technique known as single cell genomics to analyze the millions of individual cells that make up cancer. Their goal is to use this information to predict how individual cells within a patient’s tumour will respond to chemotherapy.

Microsoft recently formed a partnership with BC Cancer to propel this cutting-edge work. Using Azure, scientists are able to gather, analyze and collaboratively access vast amounts of data, accelerating the pace of research. Building from that here in Vancouver, we talked to Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shah about utilizing the HoloLens platform to create mixed reality tools that can help researchers visualize the architecture of a tumour.

In January, Dr. Aparicio and Dr. Shaw pitched an idea to the Garage interns here at Microsoft Vancouver. They wanted to build an interactive prototype that would allow scientists to see a tumour at single cell resolution. The project was selected, and the team got to work.

Using the HoloLens platform, the interns created an interactive application that researchers can use to visualize a tumour as a 3D hologram. The tech provides an opportunity to identify different cell types and explore the spatial relationship between them – something that has never before been possible.

“These holograms, you can walk around them, you can naturally interact with them, point at things and collaborate with others,” notes Cydney Nielsen, a Microsoft mentor working with the interns.

The team completed their four-month internship in April with a working prototype, but the project didn’t stop there. Six more interns picked up where the first team left off, looking at user feedback and adding functionality for improved collaboration within the application.

With two more months left in this phase of the project, there are still plenty of possibilities for where it will go. For cancer researchers, it’s the very tip of what’s possible when we push technological boundaries. And for the interns, it’s an opportunity to be at the leading edge of digital transformation.

“We are trying to push that front forward, knowing that the best thing today will be something completely different tomorrow,” explained Melissa Lee, Garage Intern Winter 2018.

We often point out that the Garage program isn’t your average internship. University students from across the country are challenged with real-world needs. They’re responsible for every aspect, from managing the project milestones to addressing customer feedback.

Recruiting for our 2019 cohorts begins in August, so if you know a university student in Canada who is looking for a challenging opportunity, they can read more and apply here.


April is for autism awareness

,

April is Autism Awareness Month and to celebrate, the Pacific Centre Microsoft Store is partnering with the Canucks Autism Network to host a series of workshops geared toward children with autism, their parents, educators, and caregivers.

To register for all events: www.Microsoft.com/PacificCentre

Windows 10 Apps for Accessibility (Parents/Educators/Caregivers)
April 2: 9:00am—10:00 am & 5:30 pm—6:30 pm / April 28th 6:00 pm—7:00 pm Parents, guardians, and educators of individuals with autism will learn about accessibility options, resources and apps that provide educational support. All attendees will receive a complimentary gift card to purchase apps from the Windows Store.

Digital Art with Fresh Paint (Students Age 8-15)
Saturday, April 14: 9:00am-10:00am
Students with autism will learn to create and share their own digital art with the Fresh Paint app for Windows 10. They’ll explore the basics of Fresh Paint, using lifelike oil and watercolors, pastels, and more to craft their own creations.

Minecraft Hour of Code (Students Age 8-15)
Saturday, April 15: 9:00am-10:00am
Students with autism will be able to go behind the scenes to learn how to code, program, and play in a custom game world. No experience with coding is required.

Get Creative with Paint 3D (Students Age 8-15)
Saturday, April 21: 9:00am-10:00am
Students with autism will be able to fuel their creativity and learn key tools and features of designing in 3D. Participants will learn to express their ideas in three dimensions by creating their own 3D designs.

Autism Community Forum in Partnership with Canucks Autism Network (All are welcome: Educators/Caregivers/Students)
April 22: 9:00am—11:00 am
The Microsoft Store at Pacific Centre has partnered with Canucks Autism Network (CAN) to deliver a fun-filled and educational Autism Awareness Community Forum. This morning event will include interactive stations for children, youth and young adults with autism. Parents, educators and community support providers will learn about some of the best tech features that can support learning and accessibility for those with autism. Breakfast and giveaways!

Student workshops have a capacity of 10 students with autism. The workshop will be facilitated by 2 Microsoft staff members who have been trained to support students with autism, as well as 1-2 Canucks Autism Network staff and/or volunteers. We ask that one (1) parent/caregiver stay present and engaged throughout the workshop. You know your child best. While you’re here, please help us in facilitating an enjoyable workshop for all by informing us of specific learning needs, and supporting your child as we teach exciting content. All workshops will be set in an autism-safe and friendly environment. Please note the store will be closed to the public during student workshops.


What is your Vancouver?


It’s been called many things. City of glass. Wet coast. The couve. That last one is awful, by the way. Vancouver is green. It’s also gold, blue, pink if you count the cherry blossoms. You’ll catch glimpses of snow capped mountains between buildings. Salty breezes blowing through the downtown core. And seasons. We have all of them.

For this week’s post, we asked four people from across the country and around the globe – what is your Vancouver?

 


Garage interns bring machine learning to TransLink

, ,

Imagine sitting down with the head of Metro Vancouver’s transportation network to talk about the role machine learning could play in the organization. Cool, right? Now imagine you’re an intern.

In May of 2017, two dozen university students from across Canada began a four-month entrepreneurial internship at Microsoft Vancouver. It was the second of two cohorts that the global development centre recruits each year, and the first group to be pitched a combination of corporate and community projects. Enter TransLink.

“TransLink came to us with a few years of ridership data that they were willing to share,” explained Stéphane Morichère-Matte, Talent Builder for Vancouver’s Microsoft Garage Internship Program. “It was an opportunity to have the students explore machine learning and show the organization how it could impact their bottom line.”

With a team of six, the interns began working with TransLink and a group of Microsoft mentors. They utilized Xamarin, Azure App Services, including Azure ML, Visual Studio Team Services and more, to build a working prototype for the iOS platform to determine options for applications that customers might find useful.

“This was a great opportunity for us to work with bright, young talent,” noted Kurt Pregler, Chief Information Officer for TransLink. “By having the opportunity to work with these insightful and energetic interns, we were able to gain insights that would have taken longer to learn internally.”

The project focused on creating a platform that could determine bus ‘crowdedness’ using machine learning. With the support of Microsoft’s Machine Learning team in Redmond, the interns injected TransLink data in AzureML and ran many simulations to build predictive models of bus crowdedness. Armed with this predictive model, the interns built a mobile app to allow people to plan their trips based on how crowded a bus might be at different times of day, hoping to change ridership habits.

The work done by the interns was turned over to TransLink at the end of the project, giving the organization an avenue for future customer facing applications. For Microsoft, it was an opportunity to develop a closer relationship with team, increase awareness of Azure services and work directly with TransLink on managing growth through machine learning and application lifecycle management.

“While the team didn’t ship a finished app, the work they did is being used internally by TransLink and will inform future projects,” said Morichère-Matte. “It was a valuable community builder that challenged the interns and provided them with solid experience in machine learning.”

 

SaveSave