Intelligence Pushed to the Edge

Microsoft ignites artificial intelligence at the edge with Azure Percept

Microsoft recently launched Azure Percept at its Ignite 2021 conference, which, like most events these days, was held virtually. The new platform, Microsoft said, is designed to make it easy to build and operate technology driven by artificial intelligence for use in low-power edge devices, such as cameras and audio equipment.

Azure Percept is built around hardware from Microsoft’s partners and the company’s Azure artificial intelligence platform. It includes a development kit, available in preview, that promises to provide a single, end-to-end system that enables customers with minimal technical know-how to build an artificial intelligence product from the ground up. This comes with a smart camera called Azure Percept Vision; an intelligent audio system, dubbed Azure Percept Audio, is available separately. Customers of Percept will have access to Azure Cognitive Services and Azure Machine Learning, and Percept devices will automatically connect to Azure IoT Hub.

Microsoft’s move is targeted at the growing trend of applications moving to the edge of the network. In edge computing, intelligent devices can process data on their own but are best when combined with the cloud.

Early uses for the platform involve retail and warehousing, where customers can take advantage of services like object detection, shelf analytics, anomaly detection and keyword spotting. For example, the technology could be deployed in elevators to enable them to respond to custom voice commands, in cameras for alerting managers when shelves are low on stock, in video feeds for monitoring empty slots in car parks, as well as on factory floors.

Microsoft is working with silicon and equipment manufacturers to build an ecosystem of intelligent edge devices certified to run on Azure Percept. Over the course of the next few months, Microsoft plans to certify third-party devices for inclusion in this programme, which aims to allow customers to take their proofs-of-concept and easily deploy them to certified devices. Azure Percept works “out of the box” with Azure Cognitive Services, Azure Machine Learning, Azure Live Video Analytics and other Azure services to deliver vision and audio insights in real time.

Microsoft also announced three new vertical clouds at Ignite 2021, for manufacturing, financial services and non-profit organizations, following the launch of its clouds for the healthcare sector in October and for the retail market in January. The bundle of vertical clouds is made up of an array of tools and services that Microsoft deems to be most useful for those industries.

For example, the retail cloud includes Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform, as well as the Microsoft Advertising suite, plus various templates and connectors to help customers in that industry deal with structured and unstructured data. All three of the new vertical clouds offer a similar package, together with various “industry-specific capabilities”.

Microsoft is investing heavily in cloud computing and developing artificial intelligence as computation shifts away from PCs — an industry that the company enabled — to a much broader array of computing options within a highly distributed architecture. For our full analysis of announcements from Microsoft’s event, see Insight Report: Event Report: Microsoft Ignite 2021.