New Microsoft smart buildings showcase Azure Digital Twins

Oct 23, 2018   |  

Bert Van Hoof close up portrait
Azure Digital Twins allows building managers to digitally model the physical spaces they manage, says Bert Van Hoof, partner group program manager for the Microsoft Azure IoT product group. Importantly, it also allows them to model where people are in that physical space, and to see which facilities and applications they are using. (Photo by Jim Adams | Inside Track)

A smart building complex that had its grand opening today at Microsoft showcases the company’s new Azure Digital Twins service.

Microsoft has been aggressively building, deploying, and testing smart building technology on its own buildings for years. It has been progressively getting better and better at using sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to manage hundreds of buildings at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and around the world. All that work has been woven into Azure Digital Twins, which brings spatial intelligence to the Microsoft Azure IoT platform.

Now available to everyone, Azure Digital Twins allows you to model your physical space digitally and, importantly, to layer in the real time location of where people are in that physical space and what devices they are using.

“Modeling the complex interactions and high-value intersections between people, places, and things is unlocking new opportunities, creating new efficiencies, and improving public and private spaces,” says Bert Van Hoof, partner group program manager for the Microsoft Azure IoT product group.

Going full circle, today Microsoft opened and welcomed employees back to newly renovated Buildings 121 and 122, some of the first company buildings to use the Azure Digital Twins smart building technology that Microsoft Digital and facilities managers helped develop.

The lessons that will be learned at those two buildings, and others that are about to open, along with the upcoming rebuilding of half of the company’s Redmond campus will be used to strengthen the Azure Digital Twins platform, Van Hoof says.

There’s no question that the work being done on campus is a huge asset.

“Customers and partners are exceptionally curious about what Microsoft is doing with its smart buildings in regard to modeling our physical buildings,” he says. “It always comes back to, ‘what are you doing on your own campus?’”

The work that Microsoft Digital has done to pioneer the company’s smart building evolution in partnership with Microsoft Real Estate & Security (RE&S) plays well with customers, he says. “It gives our customers and partners confidence that our platform will work for them,” Van Hoof says.

Launching a smart building

When Microsoft employees walk into Buildings 121 and 122 today, the first hint that something is different in the completely renovated buildings is the kiosks located at each entry point and gathering spot.

“These kiosks are the launching point of the new smart building experience,” says Kelly Monteiro, a senior program manager on the Microsoft Digital team that deployed the smart building technology in the two new buildings.

“You will walk up to a kiosk and it will show you the available meeting rooms near you,” she says. “You’ll be able to swipe your badge and book that room right from the kiosk.”

The kiosks also can physically guide employees to a room they’re looking for, allow them to book a shuttle to another building, or let them scan the menu of the café closest to them.

The buildings are layered with IoT sensors that track things like motion to determine occupancy. Using an internal version of the Azure Digital Twins platform, that information is overlaid on people information like meeting schedules and desk assignments. Add the employee interacting with the kiosk or on an online experience, and you have captured the essence of modeling the physical building experience in a digital twin world.

“We’re only at the beginning,” says Pankaj Arora, Microsoft Digital’s software engineering leader for smart buildings, whose team incubated the platform technology in Microsoft Digital and partnered with Van Hoof’s team to evolve and productize it into Azure Digital Twins. “There is so much more that we’re going to be able to do longer-term to increase employee productivity and digitally transform experiences.”

Arora sketched out a scenario where smart building technology will be able to see an employee rushing to a meeting room and will start the meeting for her just as she walks into the room, automatically connecting her to the call, starting her presentation while adjusting the lights for her, and fetching her a coffee from the breakroom (just kidding on that last one…. maybe).

The kiosk experience is intentionally light, so employees don’t get hung up there, trying to do too much.

“We intentionally made these very quick, micro transactions that give you just what you need – sometimes with just a glance,” he says, explaining that the team keeps learning about what smart building capabilities are useful and those that can be pruned out based on adoption metrics. “How much functionality is too much? We were careful not to reinvent Outlook, but rather surface the right tidbits of information and capabilities at the right time.”

A view of a central open space in remodeled Building 121.
Remodeled Microsoft Building 121 pictured on the day before its grand opening. The building is equipped with sensors that help company employees figure out which meeting rooms are occupied and which are vacant. (Photo by Jim Adams | Inside Track)

Setting the table for a new look campus

Microsoft RE&S got involved in the smart building project so that it can give the company employees the best, most productive work space possible, says Weston Henderson, district facilities manager, who works in the division of the company that manages all of its buildings.

“We are working with Microsoft Digital’s smart buildings team and the Azure Digital Twins product team, so we can execute on this vision,” Henderson says. “We want to help our employees do more by eliminating points of friction that could slow them down in their day to day.”

Deploying smart building technology across Microsoft fits in with the company’s goal to have employees work together in open spaces that are welcoming, intuitive to use, and that allow for maximum collaboration and productivity, he says.

“We’ll use what we learn in Buildings 121 and 122 to help us inform our upcoming campus redevelopment effort,” Henderson says. “This is one of RE&S’s opportunities to start fresh and get it right from the ground up.”

Microsoft is starting a multi-year campus refresh that includes 18 new buildings and 6.7 million square feet of renovated workspace that all will be outfitted with some of the technology that is debuting today in Buildings 121 and 122, Henderson says. When finished, 14,000 employees will work in the new buildings and renovated space.

“This is a launching pad for what’s to come,” he says. “This is just the beginning of what we’re going to do with our building technology and the Azure Digital Twins platform.”

Learn more about the company’s approach to data and smart buildings by reading this Data analytics and smart buildings increase comfort and energy efficiency case study. Watch this video to see a demo of how RE&S is using IoT sensors to report bathroom challenges, tell jokes, and share what’s on the menu at area cafes.

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