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Top 8 Microsoft Research projects to improve our lives

I'm always fascinated by the ideas folks come up with for research projects when it comes to how we use computers and technologies in our daily lives. Microsoft Research has a Web site covering its socio-digital systems research projects. Much of the work is about unlocking the personal photos and information in our Documents folders to better connect with family members. Other projects are about how technologies and user interfaces can improve how we preceive and interact with our digital lives.

Here are the top eight socio-digital systems research projects that I find most interesting and think could yield something we might see in consumer products down the road.

Phone home. No, not the telephone-call kind of phoning home, but rather sending information from your cell phone or computer to help create a digital presence while you are away. It's about pushing images from your cell phone and delivering them as a postcard to a digital picture frame, such as with the (1) Digital Postcard project. Imagine that digital picture frame you have now automatically shows digital Christmas cards or birthday greetings from loved ones. The (2) Epigraph project shows some real promise for those who are away or not living at home anymore. Each family member gets a space on the screen to post whatever content they want to have there for mom and dad. Or imagine military servicemen or women keeping connected with their spouse while away by sending digital updates from their phone or computer onto the screen.

I know it's here somewhere. I just received an e-mail from Micro Center advertising a Western Digital 1TB drive for $99 bucks, and we're now seeing 1.5TB drives at retail. That's amazing. On the other side of the equation, we're generating new content at amazing rates, snapping photos with our cameras at the drop of a hat. I take lots of pictures with my digital camera because there's seemingly no cost to capturing all those extra photos in digital form. But what happens to all this stuff? It goes into places like our Pictures folder on the hard drive, it's on memory sticks and cards, or DVD and data CDs. And how will we find and access it later? That's what the (3) Digital Shoebox and (4) Family Archive projects seek to explore. It's like the data management version of the cryogenic-freezing program: We all keep creating personal digital content and buying more disk drives in hopes that someday they'll discover a cure for the information archiving, searching and retrieval of all that stuff before our time on earth is up.

Shake -- Good phone, good little phone. Not long ago we all would have said touchscreens were something for kiosks, and voice recognition wasn't good enough for everyday use. Now touchscreen smartphones are all the rage, and most phones have at least some basic voice-dialing capabilities. I use voice dial on my BlackBerry all the time. Microsoft is exploring the potential of "vibrotactile" (that's a new one on me) displays to help communicate using handheld devices. Imagine the comfort of "feeling through your phone" your latchkey child putting the key in the lock when he arrives home safe after school, or feeling the romantic heartbeat of your significant other when they send you an SMS text or e-mail. That's what the (5) Shake2Talk project is about. This one's a little out there, and while I'm not so sure we're going to have shaking phones anytime soon, I'm always curious what a research project like this might learn.

How was your "meeting on the green," honey? One of the funniest stories a buddy told me was when a vendor took him out golfing one day at work and his cell phone pocket dialed his spouse. He later was caught in a lie about his difficult workday. The (6) Whereabouts Clock shows where family members are located based on their cell phone's GPS location. At the very least, family members will have to get more creative about the tall tales they tell regarding their comings and goings.

Foot in both camps. Still waiting for the paperless office? So am I. If you're a fan of the movie Brazil (a Terry Gilliam film) as I am, you know that technology doesn't always change everything the way we think it will. Two projects -- (7) Text-it-Notes and (8) TEXT2PAPER -- are all about transferring messages back and forth between paper and digital form without manual transcription. I'm seeing products like digital pens and paper -- Livescribe for example (which is pretty good actually) -- in stores like Costco. While still on the novelty end of things, we're all looking for ways to create bridges between our pens, pencils and computers. What I want is a Post-it Note scanner, text recognition, wireless data transfer and paper shredder, all in one device. It might cost $400 for the device, but I'm sure we all need one of these for our Post-it Notes, don't we? :)

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