Future Tech is an annual ReadWrite series where we explore how technologies that will shape our lives in the years and decades to come are grounded in the innovation and research of today. 

You're at a cocktail party. As people jostle past you in a loud room, you turn your head to listen to the fascinating raconteur who just buttonholed you. In so doing, you're placing one ear closer to the speaker’s mouth than the other.

What you just did, drink in hand, is an instinctive physics experiment. You've subtly altered the amount of time that it takes for sound to reach each of your two ears. Without knowing it, you just performed an act that researchers call adaptive view forming.

Cocktails And Change

The Cocktail Party Question is something that researchers have been looking at since the 1950s. At the time, nobody in their right mind could have imagined what it would become. 

In the mid-1990s, several scientists at Microsoft's giant research division wanted to take a closer look at the concept of adaptive view forming. They started focusing microphones at a single spot. Specifically, they were looking at microphone arrays based on something called a minimum variance distortionless response (MVDR) beamformer. By the early years of this millennium, they'd built a nine-microphone prototype that they brought into a few hundred homes in the Seattle area to test. 

Enter Alex Kipman, part of Microsoft’s Xbox team. He was looking for a new controller for the Xbox video-game console. The microphone arrays in the Microsoft Research lab provided a great opportunity, when mixed with other innovations such as infrared image sensing, to create a game controller that could capture human movement.

The result was the birth of Microsoft Kinect. At the time of its release, it was the fastest-selling gadget in history, with 8 million units sold in the first 60 days.

The Cocktail Party Question (Image: Breakfast At Tiffany's) The Cocktail Party Question (Image: Breakfast At Tiffany's)

Multi-array microphones are just one example among dozens in how different fields of research laid the path over decades for the Kinect to come to market. But you can see what happened: Researchers pondered a theoretical question and formed explanations. They turned those explanations into applied models. Eventually, an enterprising entrepreneur looking to solve a real-world problem seized upon those models as the solution.

That's the classic model for long-term research and development. What is being upended by the Internet is what happens next. Products no longer march solemnly from lab to market: They ping-pong back and forth in a tighter and tighter loop, with mercantile realities inspiring academic progress as much as the other way around.

For example, Kinect technology is now being used by researchers across the world in places like the MIT Media Lab to study how to create 3D models, imaging and computer vision. One era of innovation begets the next. 

And so we continue to evolve, faster and faster than before.

Real-World Innovation

This is how innovation really works.

We give most of the credit in today’s technological world to entrepreneurs who come up with interesting ways to apply innovations that took researchers years and decades to create. 

But we are living the future that those researchers spent so much time building. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, the cloud, sensors, video games, automobiles, nuclear energy, fracking … everything that shapes our society today is derivative of some smart person exploring the art of the possible, then pushing past it. Entrepreneurs may be the ones who get it into our hands, but they didn't start the journey.

The future is now. Yet we—humanity—are just getting started exploring.

A Map To The Future Present

Hence ReadWrite's Future Tech series, an annual journey into innovations both ubiquitous and unforeseen. Scientists and researchers are still asking questions big and small that will lead us to places that we could never have possibly imagined. At the same time, we can look at what researchers are doing today in corporations, think tanks and universities across the world to see the seeds of tomorrow.

We see the future everyday. Innovation is happening faster now than it ever has in the history of human evolution. It took centuries, then decades, for the fruits of laboratory experiments to reach store shelves. Now it can take less than a year.

The reason for this is that systems have been built that enable innovation, allowing people to build efficiently on layers of technology already laid down by their predecessors.

The most prominent example of this is the Internet. At its core, the Internet is a constantly evolving, decentralized platform the is the spine of just about every technological project being undertaken. Information is more readily available than ever before, enabling researchers around the globe to collaborate in real time. 

For instance, look at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Physicists are hurling atoms at each other at mind-numbing speeds, looking for the existence of the "God Particle" (also known as the Higgs Boson). Other physicists across the world can extract the data sets from the Large Hadron Collider almost as soon as it happens and perform their own research. The power of the collective brain has never been more prevalent. And the Internet plays a massive role. It's no coincidence that the World Wide Web was born at CERN.

On a smaller scale, we see consumer products evolve faster than ever. Upgrades used to come a few times a decade; now new models arrive annually, with over-the-air software updates wirelessly transforming our devices in ways both big and small.

We have built a technological infrastructure that allows innovators to build quickly and cheaply (in comparison to universities and think tanks). Industrial design and manufacturing processes have been streamlined and globalized. Apple can build an iPhone and add to its computing power every year. The changes may seem subtle over time, but the years go by and you realize that the iPhone you have in 2013 is lightyears more sophisticated than the one you had in 2007. It is from this infrastructure that the next generation of technology will emerge.

Over the next month, Future Tech will explore the possibilities of tomorrow grounded in the innovation of today. Over the next several weeks we will explore computers that can think for themselves, how to hack the human brain, how dust has become “smart,” the evolution of artificial intelligence and much, much more. 

The future will be fascinating. Perhaps also terrifying, if you imagine some of the possibilities. Either way, we must understand it. Join us as we explore the possibilities.

Next in Future Tech: How Researchers Map The Future Of Innovation With Microsoft Research's Peter Lee