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Real-World Windows Azure: Interview with Ernest Kwong, Director of Technology Solutions at Designercity

As part of the Real World Windows Azure interview series, I talked to Ernest Kwong, director of technology solutions at Designercity, about using Windows Azure for its interactive karaoke application.…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure interview series, I talked to Ernest Kwong, director of technology solutions at Designercity, about using Windows Azure for its interactive karaoke application.  Here’s what he had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh:  Tell me about Designercity.

Ernest Kwong:  Designercity was founded in the United Kingdom in 1995 as a web consulting firm. In 2000, we reestablished our headquarters in Hong Kong, China and began focusing on broader, integrated digital solutions. We’re now an independent digital solution consultant and software vendor and a Microsoft Partner Network member, developing mobile applications, multi-touch solutions, and out-of-home applications.

Our success is built on identifying and filling gaps in the market with innovative technology solutions. We have a high level of technological expertise and make it a focus to adopt new technology as it emerges and apply it to real-life business situations. As a result of this approach, we’ve won mandates to develop digital solutions for prominent organizations, including the Hong Kong International Airport and the Hong Kong Tourist Board.

HKS:  What kinds of solutions are your customers asking for?

EK:  We increasingly get requests from customers to provide hosting for their applications. Customers want highly available, scalable applications but do not want to manage infrastructure.

One such customer was Red MR a subsidiary of bma Investment Group, which has interests in the sports, hospitality, and entertainment and media industries. Red MR is a new karaoke brand that operates two popular karaoke complexes in Hong Kong. The karaoke market in Hong Kong was in decline and had seemingly lost touch with the ‘digital generation. Red MR wanted an interactive karaoke experience for its customers but was hesitant to invest significant capital resources to build an infrastructure to host the application it imagined amidst the declining market.

HKS:  How did you respond to Red MR’s request?

EK:  We wanted to tackle this market with a new spirit but we did not want to build a data center of our own. Data centers and infrastructure are not our core business. We’re looking for solutions that can provide the infrastructure components of solutions we develop.

HKS:  What did develop for the customer?

EK:  In October 2010, we started developing a revolutionary karaoke concept for Red MR using Microsoft Surface to develop the multiuser, multi-touch karaoke application and the Microsoft Silverlight 4 browser plug-in and Windows Presentation Foundation to deliver a rich user interface. Customers who visit the Red MR karaoke complexes can use the Microsoft Surface unit to select karaoke songs, play games, upload photos, and even order food and beverages as part of a complete entertainment experience.

We used web roles in Windows Azure to host the front-end application and worker roles to handle background tasks, tapping Blob Storage in Windows Azure to store binary files, including photos, videos, and songs. Windows Azure is the backbone of our solution, providing the information hub that brings all of the content together.

We also developed an app for Windows Phone 7 as a complement to the Microsoft Surface application, enabling unique features that integrate customers’ smartphones with the Microsoft Surface unit. Customers can play games on the unit by using their Windows Phone as a controller, for instance.

HKS:  How has the customer responded to this solution?

EK:  We finished the karaoke application by the end of December 2010, and Red MR implemented the solution at two complexes. Each complex has 10 Microsoft Surface units, one for each of the complexes’ private suites, which accommodate four to 40 people. By June 2011, the karaoke experience was so popular that Red MR was preparing to open two more complexes and the number of Microsoft Surface units it uses to 100.

HKS:  What benefits have you seen as a result of using WindowsAzure?

EK: By using the Red MR project as a springboard, we’ve developed an extensible framework that we can reuse to create other interactive solutions for customers in the entertainment industry. We’ve evolved over the last decade, and, with Windows Azure and Microsoft Surface, we’re able to take the next step in that evolution. We charge business customers a flat rate for each Microsoft Surface unit installed, including software, and the customers pay Microsoft directly for their own monthly Windows Azure subscription.

We’re also confident that we can expand its business operations by using Windows Azure. In the future, our focus will be to serve customers throughout the greater Asia-Pacific region and Windows Azure gives us the confidence to design distributed, highly scalable applications and serve a larger region outside of Hong Kong.

Finally, by using Windows Azure, our customers can run the karaoke application and deliver engaging content without investing in and managing a physical server infrastructure—a considerable cost savings. Our customers can easily save 10 to 20 percent of the initial IT investment by using a cloud-based infrastructure built on Windows Azure. When we save customers that much money, our business becomes even more valuable.

Read the Designercity case study.

Learn how other customers are using Windows Azure.