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,"
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
"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.