Inside Microsoft’s new Inclusive Tech Lab

“An embassy for people with disabilities.”

On the north campus of Microsoft’s 500-acre headquarters, anticipation is quietly mounting. The company is gearing up to launch its new Inclusive Tech Lab, which sits in Building 86 — one of 125 buildings in its Redmond, Washington grounds. This 2,000-square-foot room used to be a reception area, with a set of doors leading to the offices within and another pair facing the rest of the world. It only seems fitting, considering what Microsoft envisions this lab to be: a place to welcome members of the disability community, the tech industry and its own designers. Importantly, it’s close to key personnel in Microsoft’s product teams. Across the street is building 88, where you’ll find chief product officer Panos Panay’s office, while down the road is the Hardware Lab in building 87.

On a recent visit to the Inclusive Tech Lab, I met a few members of the team (and Panay briefly dropped in via video chat) ahead of the launch. They were eager to welcome the world into the carefully designed room. “This is an embassy for people with disabilities,” accessibility program manager Solomon Romney said, “it is the connection between the community and our product making teams.”

The new Inclusive Tech Lab is the successor to an earlier version on the West campus that the Xbox team opened in 2017, when it was developing the Adaptive Controller. But that wasn’t a dedicated space. Senior director of hardware accessibility Kris Hunter described it as a “grassroots effort.”

“Some of the team members came together, we built IKEA furniture over the weekend,” she said. “It was just this passion project.” Though that was initially imagined to be an incubator for the Xbox team to work with designers and engineers, it evolved beyond gaming. Over the years, the lab in Studio B on the west campus hosted about 7,000 people, including clothing designers, members of congress and even competitors like Nintendo and PlayStation.

Three people inside the gaming section of Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab. One of them is using a wheelchair, and all three are using Xbox controllers.

When Hunter was transferred from Xbox to the devices team, she was asked to replicate that experience — this time with a designated space. “Panos came through one day and said, ‘There’s a space over at 86, I think it would be perfect for you guys to show and expand your thinking here,’” she said.

The space at 86 is an open-plan square that’s reminiscent of a child’s playroom. It’s bright and airy, with colorful toys and a giant fiber-optic jellyfish hanging from the ceiling in one corner. The lab is sectioned off into six general areas, including the welcome desk, a sensory stimulation corner, a demo classroom, a faux conference room and a “work and play” area. These are meant to simulate environments in which people use technology, to help product designers and members of the disability community have a basis for discussion and sharing experiences.

For that to be a conducive and welcoming environment for their guests, the Inclusive Tech Lab team had to take many different needs into consideration when designing the space, quite literally, from the ground up.

To start with, the floor of the room is divided into sections with visually distinct patterns and different tactile surfaces like wood and carpet, which makes them easier to tell apart by people using canes. Microsoft’s team was also careful to make sure the borders between them were flat to avoid potential trip hazards. “It took about 12 different attempts to come in and re-level the floor perfectly,” Romney said.

A shot of the floors at Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab, with a light wood section, gray carpet section and dark carpet section in the frame. The areas are separated by a light gray stone tile.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The lab’s ceilings have felt baffles, and the room uses felt walls that “help suck sound so that we have much clearer audio in here,” Romney explained. “For people who have limited hearing, it’s much easier to hear what’s being said.” It also provides a more comfortable environment for individuals with neurodiversity who might feel overstimulated in a large echoey space.

The light system, which can be controlled by a wall panel or via an app that Romney ran on a Surface Duo, offers dimming and color settings. “This is designed specifically to assist with sensitivities in neurodiverse individuals as well. If there are particular colors that are more soothing or others to be avoided, we can do that in real time,” he said.

He also highlighted the double motorized doors leading into the room. Both doors open automatically when you push a button or wave your hand in front of a nearby motion sensor. “That is the only place in Microsoft that you’re going to find that. It’s something we have been working on for months and months to make that a reality,” Romney said. He pointed out that although some other doors may be ADA-width, people with wheelchairs can still have a hard time fitting through them if they’re carrying bags or bulky items.

The team also made an effort to ensure the bathrooms nearest to the lab could cater to the needs of people with disabilities. Around the corner from the lab is a gender-neutral bathroom that is not only wheelchair-accessible, but also contains the first adult-sized powered changing table on the campus. Romney mentioned that this was a priority after previously encountering cases where visitors had to resort to being changed on the floors of bathrooms. “It was undignified and it was unsanitary,” he said.

The right side of Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab, where there  are colorful pieces of furniture scattered across three sections. On the right is a pseudo jellyfish fixture hanging from the ceiling.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Bearing in mind people who may be moving around with walking aids or reaching out to objects for support, the Inclusive Tech Lab team chose furniture that would not topple over easily. None of the chairs or tables have wheels, although some of the heavier storage benches do. That’s in part because, as Romney explained, the lab is “a living space” that would evolve and adapt as needs arise. The team might move closets around or re-designate the sections, for instance.

For now, though, the six areas in the lab reflect the way our lives are today. The work and play area, specifically, is set up to show a home office, kitchen table and living room. Along the back wall is a desk with a Surface Studio, showing Windows accessibility features for people with low vision. On the kitchen table, the team has laid out not only a Surface Laptop Studio connected to a Braille display and audio scales, but also a mug with a “Say When” sensor that provides audible alerts to prevent overfilling.

“What we showcase here is the best that Microsoft has to offer alongside the best that our partners have to offer,” Romney said. “We rely on a lot of other people to help fill out that ecosystem of accessibility.” Both he and Hunter reiterated that “accessibility is not a competition.” When she was telling me about bringing Nintendo and PlayStation to the lab in Studio B, Hunter said, “we believe that a rising tide floats all boats.”

To the right of the faux dining area is a hypothetical living room, with a couch and a large TV. Here, the team has provided the Xbox Adaptive Controller and setups for one-handed Halo and no-hand Forza. Gaming is the team’s heritage, Romney said, and since the new lab is twice the size of its predecessor, they haven’t had to reduce the footprint of the gaming area at all.

In the classroom space, three tables have been set up facing a Surface Hub. Each desk features different devices with assistive tech built in, including Microsoft’s Surface Adaptive Kit that was released last year. There’s also a Surface Laptop SE with a JCPal keyboard skin that brought increased visibility and tactility to its buttons. In the front row, there are augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices like a Surface Go 3 in a Targus case with speech-generating software as well as a computer with a Tobii eye-detecting sensor connected.

The faux classroom inside Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab. Three tables are set up facing a Surface Hub and each table has assistive devices on it.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

But the gadgets themselves aren’t the only area of focus. The Inclusive Tech Lab team is aware that it’s set up an “idealized version of a classroom,” clarifying that desks like the ones they’ve chosen aren’t available in all learning institutions. The team has deliberately designed its space this way to “show what is possible when we normalize assistive technology,” Romney explained.

“A lot of times, not just in school but in the workplace as well, when your technology looks so different from everyone else’s, that can be really off-putting,” he added.

That principle applies to the conference room portion of the lab as well, although Romney acknowledged this is an area that is likely to evolve as the team learns more about remote work. Right now, it consists of a long oval table with six chairs set up around it with a screen on a wall behind one end.

Contemplating a hybrid workplace also involves thinking about telepresence robots. For members of the team who live in other countries, the Inclusive Tech Lab also has a robot with a screen and wheels to allow them to “visit.” This helps them “have a physical presence in the space when we're doing things like inclusive design sprints so that they don't feel left out,” Romney said.

Finally, in the back left corner of the room, anchored around a giant fiber-optic jellyfish suspended from the ceiling, is the Sensory corner. It’s basically a section that Romney said has “a lot of additional sensory options” like lights, colors, textures and sound for “individuals who need extra stimulation to transition between tasks or focus or to re-center.” Here, the team has placed bean bag chairs with piles of colorful plush toys on them, a pair of approximately six-foot-tall bubbling lava lamps against a wall and a soft green bench with cushions in metallic hues on it. A soft, low-pile rug in Minecraft green spreads across most of this section, for people who might want a soft surface to crawl or lay on.

The sensory space inside Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab, with a faux jellyfish suspended from the ceiling. There are green beanbags and chairs in this corner, with piles of colorful plush toys and cushions on them. In the back, along the wall, are a pair of bubbling lamps.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The main attraction of this corner, and arguably of the whole lab, is the “jellyfish.” It’s really a domed light fixture with 300 strands of slightly wavy color-changing fiber optics dangling from it in a ring. When Hunter turned down the room’s lights and Romney fired up the so-called tentacles, I got inside the jellyfish and played with the soft, wispy wires.

I’m not one for extra sensory stimulation — if anything I prefer reduced or hypostimulation — but I could see how the experience might be calming for some. The team had set up a makeshift version of this in the old lab, using a hula hoop as the base for the light cables. “We found in the old lab [that] the tactility of touching the strands and the changing lights [gives] a very soothing element to the jellyfish,” Romney said.

Like I said, though, hyperstimulation is not for everyone, and the Inclusive Tech Lab team is aware of that. “This is one of the areas that’s probably going to change the most,” Romney said. “This is an area that is new in our understanding, at Microsoft, of how neurodiversity and hardware interact.” But, Romney assured me, the jellyfish would remain.

With this particular section, the team is exploring transitional spaces. Hunter explained that one use for sensory rooms is for children who need a place, before entering a classroom, where they can get calm or get ready to learn. It’s not just for kids, either. People who are neurodiverse or have anxiety could potentially benefit from such transitional spaces, and the team wants to learn more about how to thoughtfully implement them.

Two people in the classroom section of Microsoft's new Inclusive Tech Lab, both holding laptops in their hands.

To best understand how Microsoft will use its new Inclusive Tech Lab to engage the community, we can look back to what it did in the past. Hunter said that at the old facility in Studio B, the company not only hosted Nintendo and Playstation, but also brought in industry leaders to discuss topics like inclusive clothing, as well as members of Congress to look into building inclusive voting machines. “We believe everyone wins when we can do this as a community,” she said.

That’s one of many, many mantras that members of the team repeated during my time with them. I kept hearing variations of the saying “Solve for the one and extend to the many,” for example, or “Nothing about us without us.” The latter refers to the importance of including and engaging members of the disability community when creating products for them. This is clearly something that’s important to the Inclusive Tech Lab team, who are spread out across Microsoft’s hardware, accessories, Azure and Windows departments. The company also employs people with disabilities and involves them in the design process.

Romney is looking forward to opening the lab. “I imagine I am just going to get swamped with requests,” he said. The challenge, ultimately, is getting the word out. “We have decades of features in Windows, but people don’t know about them,” Romney said. He added that thinking about what conferences to go to, who to reach out to is part of the solution. One of the reasons the new lab is in building 86, he said, was to be closer to the tours conducted in building 87 and potentially be a stop on them to help spread awareness to visitors.

“We believe accessibility isn’t a one and done,” Hunter said. Of all the sayings I heard the lab team repeat, this struck me as the one to leave with. The responsibility of making inclusive design an industry standard doesn’t and shouldn’t lie with Microsoft alone. More companies need to be proactive and persistent in making sure their products don’t leave people out. A dedicated Inclusive Tech Lab may not be the approach for all businesses, but the determined mentality I saw (and in this case manifested as a physical space) is something they should all strive to emulate.