New tools for video conferencing, sharing information with fellow students or co-workers, discovering distant planets online, and even getting kids interested in computer programming were on display March 6 at TechFest, the annual gathering of Microsoft Corp.’s international research department.
For an event designed to show off cutting-edge software inventions, there were a lot of familiar tools on display: sticky notes, whiteboards, video-game consoles. That’s intentional, said Rico Malvar, the managing director of Microsoft Research’s Redmond, Wash., lab.
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 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 device 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 yet to consumers, and they might never be. Researchers were showing their best new work to Microsoft employees who 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.
At TechFest, researchers also demonstrated an Xbox video game designed to teach children computer-programming basics. The game centers on an egg-shaped floating robot called Boku, which doesn’t do much of anything–until the user starts giving it directions.
“There is an ongoing and deepening crisis in computer science,” said Microsoft Research Senior Vice President Rick Rashid. “Our goal is to stem the tide by showing young kids the magic of software programming.”
Using Xbox, kids as young as four years of age can program the robot to interact with its world, travel around among various objects they create, and even eat a virtual apple. 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.”
“It’s very much like playing a game,” Rashid said. “But it’s a serious endeavor that we believe will begin to interest kids in programming and eventually make them more comfortable tackling the really big challenges in computer science.”
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 school out of pure personal fascination. “For a lot of people, [programming] has become a very profitable career,” he said, but 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.
Researchers also showed “Mix: Search-Based Authoring,” a technology that pulls data from many sources–different web sites, a computer’s hard drive and databases–and integrates the data into one document that can be easily shared with friends, family members, or co-workers.
“Think of Mix as a kind of high-tech, living scrapbook,” Rashid said. “You can create a page that has digital pictures of your family, eMails you exchange with family members, and links to places you love to visit together. And you can send that page to any other member of your family–all without having to build a web page.”
Mix also has important applications for business and research. Students and information workers often need to share the most up-to-date information in a group. Mix would allow them to build a document about a particular project and include search results related to the project, links to internal web sites about the project, and even newsgroups that discuss the nature of the project. They can then share the document, and members of the group can continue to add content to it, automatically updating the document for the entire group, researchers said.
Also on display: 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 while 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.