James Governor's Monkchips

Crossing The Chasm: Microsoft Cedes World Sim To Google?

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A few months ago I wrote a piece about the awesome work being done at Microsoft with its ESP platform, which I described as ” the single coolest initiative I have seen from Microsoft in the 13 years I have been watching the firm”.  Others agreed- it was one of the most commented on and linked to posts I have written. I said:

The key phrase there is land, sea and air. Flight Sim after all is very cool but almost too realistic – not everybody wants to actually fly a plane. But next up will be Train-SIM (of course not everyone is train spotter either, but run with my here…), then automobile and underwater. Microsoft basically wants to model the entire world as accurately as possible, embedding “real” physics into the system.

But what struck me were the business opportunities behind detailed simulation and modeling

The costs of keeping aircraft in flight for military training purposes: anyone for $7k an hour for maintenance, per plane? The big difference now with Flight-SIM- it has evolved from game into a certified platform, which creates all kinds of new revenue opportunities for Microsoft, which will drive further evolution of the platform. The US military already makes extensive use of gaming technology, which could be leveraged in planning for actual battles. Import the street and then run scenarios: If we attack insurgents on this street in Falluja what will be lines of site where we should position our own snipers and take out theirs? At the risk of getting carried away, could we have modeled the surge? Could technology like this have helped the military make the case for more feet on the ground during the initial attack on Iraq? War Games can embed significant truths. My hope though is that ESP quickly moves beyond applications for the military-industrial complex and into other spaces. Certainly the PC economics – commodity hardware oh yes, the platform is now being designed for multicore—involved make it likely. If the only people that can get their hands on World-SIM are military departments then Microsoft will have failed. But frankly that’s not going to happen.

Evidently Microsoft senior managers feel differently. Analyst predictions- ahem. This month Microsoft announced a resource action on the lab involved. A prepared statement read:

“Microsoft is currently exploring options for the future of ESP and will announce details at the appropriate time. The company is not commenting further at this point.”

I am left reeling by the announcement for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the kind of military applications envisioned and delivered by the ESP team are now becoming a hot topic in military circles, given the rising costs of fuel. The Financial Times today reports:

In the UK, the Ministry of Defence last year set up an internal fuel forum to look at all aspects of fuel usage, including efficiency. Several initiatives are under way: expanding use of simulator-based training for armed forces; optimising fuel usage during live training (for example conducting fast-jet training without unnecessary underslung equipment); and improving fuel storage.

Armed forces want to expand use of simulator-based training and Microsoft is considering cutting the division that delivers on the promise? There must be a problem with my maths. You don’t cut investment at the end of the cycle, you surely cut it earlier than that.

So the industrial applications market can only grow, but what about the competitive landscape? While some would argue Microsoft World-Sim and Google Earth are very different tools for different purposes, let’s face it – both are realistic simulations you can fly through, which aggregate real world data for physics purposes. And while Flight Sim was going to deliver underwater as a mode, Google just pulled the trigger. In a story today Google Earth Fills Its Watery Gaps The NY Times reported that Google is now mapping the blue parts of the planet.

Microsoft and Google were in adjacent market, on a collision course. Not any more. Somebody blinked.

disclosure: Obviously there is a fair bit of conjecture in this piece, and its more than possible that ESP will emerge Bird or plane like from the ashes. As I said the tools are not the same. But where do you go for a virtual view of the real world? Neither Google nor the Microsoft gaming division are clients.


  1. >You don’t cut investment at the end of the cycle, you surely cut it earlier than that.
    Investments that are not going to add to the bottomline ~2-3 year. Perhaps a small chunk of it could be open sourced, and kept alive and growing.
    As 3D Sim is very computing and data intensive, it is very strategic and lucrative for cloud.
    Opensourcing chunks of 3D sim codebase could enable a few startups to emerge out of the codebase. Acquiring some of them when the going is good and integrating with rest of the (non-opensourced strategic)chunk could as well be a way to recoup the investment.

    Is any of the biggies attempting opensourcing as a belt tightening strategy?

  2. […] at Redmonk, James Governor has written a very interesting piece on what has happened to the Microsoft ESP platform. Mirror […]

  3. Are these games available for the XBox? If not, the question would be: are PC games as rentable as console ones?
    This comment was originally posted on Tim Anderson’s ITWriting

  4. Will this lead a fully augmented reality, with avatars in the virtual world able to occupy the same space as someone within the real world. Perhaps the real person could visualise and interact with the virtual via an app on their phone and visa versa?
    This comment was originally posted on eightbar

  5. I expect that is where we are headed Wayne. Now we are getting to the point of having meaningful and persistent 3d models, instrumented from real information, and also able to generate real information back out again either visually with overlay/merges etc, physically with 3d printers/rapid fabrications or as simple publish/subscribe messages we have a completed circle. Real can got to virtual, virtual can be made real, as a suitably easy commercial scale. Not locked in an expensive research lab.
    That allows the research and product development to move to its next stages. Things like the seattle company building an imaging contact lense.
    Haptic feedback devices, emotiv headsets etc. all start to for the basis for solutions to problems and also to entertainment experiences.
    The phone can be a catalyst for this, as we have seen with the iphone a massive increase in the use of both multi touch and location based services, without anyone really noticing. It just gets on with it and does what it does.
    AR is not new of course, and the great research work and thought leadership that has gone on is now being put in the hands of the general public, so who knows where it will go next.
    We should get to a point where it really does not matter where you are, you can comfortably interact with whoever or whatever you need to in which ever way works, not tied to a qwerty keyboard, mouse and screen.
    (Like the previous post with the coca cola ad and avatars everywhere 🙂 )
    This comment was originally posted on eightbar

  6. Consder the possibilities for this concept in a military command and control facility. Key people assembled quickly, all “seeing” real incomng data, open discussion and evaluation of the situation, crisis planning and real time, critical decisions made. Participants depart to execute those plans and decisions, meeting again virtually only as necessary. The virtual decsion center “appears and disappears” as necessary allowing leaders to remain with their units and execute the tasks at hand.
    This comment was originally posted on eightbar

  7. when i read articles such as these it really makes me wonder what the future holds. i actually think that when we look back we will laugh at how little we had progressed back then, in good ole 2009.
    This comment was originally posted on eightbar

  8. @monkchips eg: US military already makes… use of gaming techn’ which could be leveraged in planning for…battles http://twurl.nl/lqt47d
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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