The Man Behind Microsofts Expression

Forest Key leads Microsoft's push into the design tools space with a new suite of tools.

Forest Key is leading Microsoft into uncharted territory for the software giant: the land of professional design tools. After years of continual leadership in the developer tools space, Microsoft is marching in with a set of tools for designers, having announced its Expression suite last month.

Key, who is director of product management for Microsofts design tools, is indicative of the new breed of Microsoft employee. He is steeped in the designer world and has worked as both a creator and a user of the technology. Key previously worked at Macromedia— which has since been acquired by Adobe Systems, one of the primary companies Microsoft will be competing with in its new push—on the Flash platform.

It is no secret that when Microsoft wants to enter a new market it goes out and gets the talent to make its move credible and to swiftly produce a viable first offering. It did so in the enterprise operating system space, hiring folks like Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment Corp. and others from IBM, it has done so in the search and Web services spaces with strategic hires, and it is doing so again in the design tools space with folks like Forest Key.

Key is an artsy fellow who speaks of a passion to both enable designers and developers through new, better tools, and also witness the products and content those tools can help to create.

"In tools, you live for enabling capability in others—to be able to say, We made that possible," Key told eWEEK in an interview on Microsofts Redmond, Wash., campus.

Key has had a high-level taste of the creative side of the business. Before he worked at Macromedia, Key worked in the film industry for Hollywood, at Industrial Light & Magic, a Lucasfilm company founded by movie special effects giant George Lucas. Key even has his own entry in the Internet Movie Database citing his work on movies such as "Star Wars" and "Big Love." The software and processes Key helped create have been used to produce several movies, including "Mission Impossible," "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix," as well as TV commercials for Honda Motor Co., he said.

Key said in his days at ILM he would spend up to 70 hours a week using expensive hardware and software to render scenes for films. Yet, he said he knew he could create tools that could cut both the time and cost of producing the same material.

"At the time there was a product called Flame by Discreet Logic, now Autodesk [acquired by Autodesk], that cost $500,000," Key said. "The complete system we used was $1 million, because before desktops were powerful enough we had to do everything on SGI [Silicon Graphics] machines."

So Key and two others from ILM left the company to form Puffin Designs, which produced Commotion, a visual effects application for video, film, and digital content creation professionals. Puffin later sold Commotion to Pinnacle Systems, which then was acquired by and remains a division of Avid Technology, where Key said he worked while he was in college.

"With version 1 of Commotion we solved the process of rotoscoping," Key said. "We realized it didnt take a million-dollar machine to do it. We took that to the desktop."

Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.

Key draws on his past, but said he likes to look ahead and has a 10-year plan for where Microsoft and the industry will be with graphics, design and multimedia technology.

/zimages/2/28571.gifeWEEK Labs finds Expression Blend to be an interesting option for design-oriented staff. Click here to read more.

"In the next five to 10 years well see interactivity on physical things, like in [the movie] Minority Report," he said.

Key sprinkles movie references into his conversation.

"In the movie Brazil they had a very dark, fatalistic view of the future and computing," Key said. "I am an eternal optimist about science fiction and how well use computers and the [user] interface. And I think well get to the point where itll [the user interface] be voice-activated or gesture-activated. And Microsoft can enable that because we do think long-term where other companies only think like six months to a year down the road."

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