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Microsoft Links Technology, Common Tools

Microsoft shows off cutting-edge software inventions at TechFest, the annual gathering of the software maker's international research department.

(Redmond, Wash.) Sticky notes. White boards. Videogame consoles. For a Microsoft Corp. event designed to show off cutting-edge software inventions, there are a lot of familiar tools on display. That's intentional, said Rico Malvar, the managing director of Microsoft Research's Redmond lab, at TechFest, the annual gathering of the software maker's international research department Tuesday.

Combining new technologies with familiar tools "makes the transition easier" for regular people, he said, as opposed to the very tech-savvy people who design them.

Researchers showed off several prototypes designed to make keeping track of a busy family's schedule easier. One, Text2Paper, prints out text messages on stickers that can then be stuck onto a calendar. Another, Text-It-Notes, lets people scribble a message on a sticky note. The devices converts it to a text message using handwriting recognition software, then fires it off to one of a few preset phones.

Those gadgets, along with most of the technology on display at Techfest, are not available to consumers, and they might never be. Researchers are showing their best new work to Microsoft employees that work on real-world products, with the hope that their innovations will find homes in future versions of Microsoft Office, Windows Mobile and other software.

Microsoft also demonstrated a video game designed to teach children computer-programming basics. The game centers on an egg-shaped floating robot called Boku, who doesn't do much of anything -- until the user starts giving it directions.

Instead of typing code onto a blank screen, kids can program Boku's actions by selecting pictures from a menu. For example, to tell Boku to float over toward a red apple on the screen, the user would select tiles, in order, for "see," "red," "apple," "move," "toward."

Kids who play video games often move from "Ooh, games are fun" to "I want to make my own," said Matt MacLaurin, a principal program manager for the Microsoft Research group that created Boku.

MacLaurin said he started programming in junior high out of pure personal fascination.

"For a lot of people, (programming) has become a very profitable career," but he said he believes the future of computer science depends on getting young people who are excited by programming, not cash.

Microsoft researchers also demonstrated a telescope application that lets PC users zoom around the universe and explore galaxies (think Google Earth, but in the stars), by piecing together images collected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey with educational content from astronomers at Harvard and other research centers.

On the terrestrial side, Microsoft showed off improvements in a new spin on video-conferencing: real-time, long-distance whiteboard brainstorming using cameras and projectors.

Also on display: Wi-Fi advertising that lands on mobile devices even if they're not connected to a network, and speakers that send sound to someone standing right in front of them, but are almost silent to someone standing off to the side.

One featured program that is available to consumers now is Lincoln, which works on Windows Mobile 5. Mobile phone users can take a photo of a DVD cover when browsing in the video store. The system matches it to a photo on file, then spits back links to Amazon.com reviews. The service is open to the public, so bands, for example, can upload an image of a poster advertising an upcoming show, then give users a link to listen to some sample songs right from their phones.

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