Many years ago, during a press visit to Microsoft HQ in Seattle, I was given relative freedom to wander around the Redmond campus. Of course, there were some areas that were strictly out of bounds. Areas like the one which was entered via the 'Cryogenics Lab' door for example. At the time I thought it a little odd that Microsoft should be investing in cryogenics, but wrote it off as the kind of thing you can get your company to play with when you are the richest man on the planet.

More recently, in 2004 to be precise, I noted with some interest that Microsoft had filed a patent (number 6754472 if you want to go and look it up) which covered an unusual method for transmitting both power and data to devices worn upon the body. This particular patent took the notion of wearable computers and personal area networks to a new level though, because it furthered the concept of creating a virtual keyboard on human skin.

Ever since, I have taken something of an interest in Microsoft patent filings. Everything from ergonomic keyboard navigation design through to the act of tabbing your way through a web page. But a story in The Times yesterday really stood out for all the wrong reasons. Microsoft seeks patent for office spy software, the headline screamed, with the article beginning as it meant to go on with "Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of remotely monitoring a worker’s productivity, physical wellbeing and competence."

Worrying stuff indeed, if this patent turned into a product that would let management monitor the performance of employees by way of wireless sensors measuring everything from heart rate and body temperature right through to 'brain signals' and facial expressions. After all, nobody wants to work in an environment where Big Brother is not only watching you but measuring your metabolism as well. And nobody wants to think of a future which includes the tenure of your employment being at the whim of a computer which might think you are a little too stressed out this week. Unless you happen to be an astronaut, of course, as they already have just such monitoring albeit not done in the same biometrically wireless way as the patent filing describes.

I did manage to raise a small chuckle when I got to the bit about the system offering to 'provide assistance' if stress or frustration were detected in the user though. It doesn't take a huge leap of faith to imagine some kind of rebirth of the Office Paperclip assistant popping up with 'you appear to be tearing your hair out, did you mean to do that.'

But hold on a moment, sometimes things are not as they appear and I think that The Times has firmly grasped the wrong end of this particular patent stick. Having taken the time to read the darn thing cover to cover, and that's 30 minutes of my life I am not getting back, it appears to have less to do with spying on staff or Big Brother monitoring and a lot more to do with bringing back the Office Assistant. Yes, you know, the animated paperclip that is only beaten in the annoying stakes by the Crazy Frog cellphone ringtone. In an effort to merge the document-centric, application-centric and device-centric user interface models that we have all got used to, Microsoft are moving development into the biometric-centric realm.

In a nutshell, this patent filing would appear to be suggesting that groups of computer users engaged in a similar type of activity can be monitored in order to provide community network based help with tasks. By recording metabolic data it is possible to determine levels of stress and frustration during the performance of a given task, say creating a new spreadsheet, which would trigger the help system into action. Other users who have successfully performed that same task recently could then be asked to help the struggling member of this worker community.

Of course, such technology has the potential to be put to a use which impacts negatively upon the privacy of the individual. To be honest though, this one seems to have a much greater potential to be one that gets filed under bad ideas quickly forgotten, right next to Microsoft Bob in fact...

About the Author

A freelance technology journalist for 30 years, I have been a Contributing Editor at PC Pro (one of the best selling computer magazines in the UK) for most of them. As well as currently contributing to, The Times and Sunday Times via Raconteur Special Reports, SC Magazine UK, Digital Health, IT Pro and Infosecurity Magazine, I am also something of a prolific author. My last book, Being Virtual: Who You Really are Online, which was published in 2008 as part of the Science Museum TechKnow Series by John Wiley & Sons. I am also the only three times winner (2006, 2008, 2010) of the BT Information Security Journalist of the Year title, and was humbled to be presented with the ‘Enigma Award’ for a ‘lifetime contribution to information security journalism’ in 2011 despite my life being far from over...

I've often thought that Microsoft's patent policy is defensive rather than offensive.
Come up with an idea you don't want worked out into a product, develop it just enough to have a viable patent, then file for that patent so a competitor can't do it and possibly harm you.

"To be honest though, this one seems to have a much greater potential to be one that gets filed under bad ideas quickly forgotten, right next to Microsoft Bob in fact..." Really? Or could this in fact be, a premonition of things to come, of a world where we (as if we aren't already) consistently rely on our machines to not only do our jobs faster or more efficiently, but to also tell us HOW to do our jobs well, and to TELL US when we are not doing our jobs well? What I'm saying is, how far away is this from a time when machines decide that their algorithms and logical calculations are better than human reasoning and complexities??