Blaise Agüera y Arcas arrived at Microsoft (MSFT) in 2006 when the software giant bought Seadragon, a startup he'd founded. The company had developed technology allowing viewers to zoom in and out of large images quickly—and that expertise attracted the attention of the team working on Microsoft's search engine, now known as Bing, and related products. Agüera y Arcas is in charge of developing features that will help Bing compete against Google (GOOG) in the mobile realm, where Bing has just 4.2 million users in the U.S. to Google's 33.1 million, according to comScore.
The latest version of Bing's iPhone app, released in June, is a start. The app includes so-called augmented reality features, which overlay computer data on real-life images, such as the view from a smartphone's camera. The Bing app can scan bar codes as well as book or DVD covers and return product information like reviews, prices, and links to merchants' sites.
An upcoming version of Bing Maps for mobile phones will bring this technique to geographical landmarks as well. Agüera y Arcas says that in the near future a Bing-equipped phone will be able to scan and identify landmarks—the Eiffel Tower, say—then automatically provide hours of operation, reviews of nearby restaurants, and other relevant information. "All this stuff is happening," he says. "We're not talking about things that are 20 years out or even 5 years out."
Agüera y Arcas' team at Microsoft is also working on ways to introduce more information into the version of Bing Maps that people use from a PC. While streetside views of building exteriors have become common in online maps, at the Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this year, Agüera y Arcas revealed a new feature that takes Bing Maps users inside the buildings, providing a panoramic view of the interior. He is encouraging store owners and tourists to submit their own photos of interiors and automatically pulling public photo sets from Flickr. Microsoft software will stitch them together to create virtual representations of real places that users can explore.
"It's a way of wikifying the physical world," says Agüera y Arcas. That's similar to how Wikipedia built the world's largest encyclopedia through the work of volunteers.
It's an ambitious goal, especially for a former Princeton physics student who has never taken a formal computer science course. Agüera y Arcas was curious about electronics and programming even as a six-year-old growing up in Mexico City. By 2003, when he founded Seadragon, he'd turned his attention to computers full-time. "My attraction has never been to computers per se, but to the fact that they offer a highly leveraged way to invent magic," he says.
Studied theoretical physics and applied mathematics at Princeton
Creating replicas of building interiors on Bing Maps
Enabling phones to scan and identify landmarks