Microsoft pushes more Kinect-like user interfaces

At TechFest, Microsoft promises new voice- and gesture-recognition products

Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360 ditched handheld controllers for gestures and sound, but natural user interfaces don't have to be restricted to video games.

That's what Microsoft's research group said Tuesday as it kicked off the TechFest conference, an annual gathering of research scientists at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

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"In the months and years to come, a growing number of Microsoft products will recognize voices and gestures, read facial expressions and make computing easier, more intuitive and more productive," Microsoft said.

Microsoft Research "is working closely with Microsoft business units to develop new products" using technology similar to the natural user interface exhibited by Kinect, the company said. "Computers are moving rapidly toward ... interfaces that are more intuitive, that are easier to use, and that adapt to human habits and wishes, rather than forcing humans to adapt to computers."

Several of the 17 Microsoft projects exhibited at TechFest take advantage of natural user interfaces.

Microsoft's Applied Sciences Group is working on smart, interactive displays using Kinect technology, including one that improves display of 3D images. The project uses "a special, flat optical lens (Wedge) behind an LCD monitor to direct a narrow beam of light into each of a viewer's eyes," Microsoft said. "By using a Kinect head tracker, the user's relation to the display is tracked, and thereby, the prototype is able to steer that narrow beam to the user. The combination creates a 3-D image that is steered to the viewer without the need for glasses or holding your head in place."

A related project uses a "Kinect-based virtual window," which tracks a "user's position relative to a 3-D display to create the illusion of looking through a window," Microsoft said. Along with other 3-D technologies, the Kinect-based virtual window could improve upon existing telepresence systems, Microsoft said.

Natural user interfaces represent just a few of the projects Microsoft is displaying at TechFest. Here are some more examples:

Face recognition in video. "In the near future, a television or an Xbox will be able to recognize people in the living room, home video will be annotated automatically and become searchable, and TV watchers will be able to get information about an unfamiliar actor, athlete, or singer just by pointing to the person on the screen," Microsoft says.

Take 3-D pictures with a regular camera. Watching 3-D content is one thing, but creating your own is another. Microsoft is demonstrating technology that can create 3-D images with normal cameras. "Our research demonstrates an easy-to-use system for creating photorealistic, 3-D-image-based models simply by walking around an object of interest with your phone, still camera, or video camera," Microsoft says. A user can view newly created 3-D images "by spinning it around on your screen, tablet or mobile device."

"Fuzzy" contact search for Windows Phone 7. A demo application for Windows Phone 7 solves the problem of incorrectly typing in the name of a contact on a smartphone. "We propose a fuzzy-contact-search feature to help users find the right contacts despite making mistakes while keying in a query," Microsoft said. "The feature is based on the novel, hashing-based spelling-correction technology developed by Microsoft Research India."

Cloud data analytics from Excel. Possibly useful for business customers, this project brings some cloud computing capabilities to Excel to make navigation of large data sets easier. "Our project shows how we seamlessly integrate cloud storage and scalable analytics into Excel through a research ribbon," Microsoft says. "Any analyst can use our tool to discover and import data from the cloud, invoke cloud-scale data analytics to extract information from large data sets, invoke models, and then store data in the cloud -- all through a spreadsheet with which they are already familiar."

Social news search for companies. Businesses can build an internal news portal by using social media tactics, such as "crowdsourcing," to improve the quality of results and identify important stories. "We tackle two questions: How can we use social media to provide a rich, topical, searchable, living news dashboard for any given company, and can we build an environment where the curation of the sources of content for a company page is done by the users of the page rather than by an editor?" Microsoft says.

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