Beta Man

From the Research Labs

They may never become products, but you can still use these utilities today.

Searching deep within the catacombs of Microsoft Research labs, Beta Man has found a couple of utilities that might make your work a little easier. While it's true that downloads from the labs rarely become released products, that doesn't mean they aren't useful. For example, I've used several mapping tools from Microsoft Research to help me write mashups with the Virtual Earth API.

Some of the things you find while exploring in the world of Microsoft Research are pretty esoteric and geared toward uses that may be decades away, but you're also bound to find a few things that can make your life a little easier today. Visit http://research.microsoft.com and see what you can find for yourself.

MapCruncher for Virtual Earth
MapCruncher is a unique tool that lets you take almost any digital map and overlay it onto the corresponding region of a Virtual Earth map. Because any two maps are almost certainly not to the same scale, and digital maps are often distorted in some way, this makes it easier to mash up special-purpose information with readily available maps.

You load a digital map into MapCruncher. Using a .PDF or any raster format works great. If you're using a .BMP, .JPEG or something similar, the higher the resolution the better. Match it up with corresponding points on a Virtual Earth map, and then let the software adjust your map to fit on the Virtual Earth foundation. Unless the digital overlay is highly distorted, you can get a pretty good match in about an hour.

You can use your maps in an ASP.NET application calling the Virtual Earth API. Take the MapCruncher-generated files and put them on your Web server. Store them in either the wwwroot directory or in a virtual directory you created when setting up the Web application. Calls to the page generating the Virtual Earth map will automatically include your overlay.

The potential uses are limitless. Do you want to overlay a map of your corporate campus on a Virtual Earth link providing directions to the office? Do you need to include nearby hotels and restaurant locations? The ability to overlay an external map on a Virtual Earth map lets you put your own specific info with the desired geographic context.

Prototype for Helpful Lookup and Tagging (Phlat)
Phlat is an alternative user interface for Windows Desktop Search. It demonstrates a more useful and expansive search facility for finding files on your computer. It also supports a unified tagging scheme for organizing personal content on desktop storage devices. In other words, you can apply a label to a file that makes it easier to find in the future.

You can install Phlat on top of Windows Desktop Search 2.6 or 3.01, and launch it in a window so you can use various search terms and filters. The interface is a little confusing, but if you play around with it for a few minutes, you'll get the hang of it. The search is fast, especially if you start tagging your files.

If you're constantly forgetting where you put files or logging help desk requests to find documents, you can certainly benefit from Phlat.

Excel Webdata Add-in
This is another tool for more easily mashing up data. It's an Excel utility called Webdata Add-in. This add-in for Excel 2007 (not previous versions) lets you identify and copy data from Web pages directly into your spreadsheets. This is useful for screen-scraping from Web pages as a way to automatically move data into other apps.

In Excel, access Webdata from the Data tab. Then select the advanced mode of getting data from the Web. Webdata opens and offers a video walk-through for first-time users. I suggest running through that short video. It will answer questions you may have later on.

The software extracts data on a page by learning from your data selections, so its accuracy improves over time. Using Webdata, type in a Web address, select a row of data, then tell it to "Select Similar." It will identify and select all of the data on the page that matches the structure of the data you suggested. Simply clicking on the Import button populates the underlying Excel worksheet.

You can write a macro to automate how you use Webdata, so you can have it go to a regularly changing Web page and bring in that data based on the time or day. If you have a Web interface to some of your system or network management tools, you can use it to capture and store data from those tools.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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