10 Microsoft research projects

A sneak peek at 10 technologies developed in Microsoft's R&D labs.

A sneak peek at 10 technologies developed in Microsoft's R&D labs

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Social Streams

Codename: Paris/Social Streams

Some ideas are born out of necessity. The Paris project – the formal product name will be Political Streams when it becomes available -- provides a big picture view of political news and blog chatter. It's essentially a trend aggregator similar to Google Trends or Yahoo Buzz, except that it crawls the Web for actual content, rather than just aggregating search terms. Alex Daley – the group product manager at Microsoft Live Labs – showed a demo where Sarah Palin news reports and blog posts appeared on a graph in comparison to reports on Barack Obama.

"This is all in real-time, and we can effectively filter across various industries – we are starting with politics," Daley says. "We can see the relationship between political reports. John McCain has had much more media interest than Barack Obama ever since the Sarah Palin announcement. We use a technique called entity extraction, a machine learning technique for classifying documents and text, such as this is a name, this is a place, or a recipe, or a review or product manual. We extract the core data and drawing relationships."

(Note: Live Labs is a seed farm at Microsoft, consisting of small five-to-eight person teams who develop innovative services and Web sites such as PhotoSynth. The small team size is intentional because Live Labs is intended to germinate ideas, some of which may not become actual products. In fact, the PhotoSynth project itself – which is a way to see 360-degree views of a real-world location – was not a raging success at first because Live Labs found that people would take the same photos of buildings and sites. Today, it has become more of a social networking site – people decide together to "stitch" a scene more intentionally.)

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Codename: LucidTouch

Ask anyone with big hands whether they like the Apple iPhone and you will likely get a resounding "No!" in response. The reason? The 2x3 inch screen requires fairly small fingers to control the interface. If your fingers are too big, you'll likely make frequent errors.

The Microsoft LucidTouch V2 technology seeks to solve this problem. It's one of those early research projects that seems like a head-scratcher at first: A device with a small 2x2 screen that's about the size of a thick credit card that allows you to reach behind the screen to make selections. A representation of your fingers shows up on screen. Your fingers can be shown smaller, or with a red dot that shows your fingertips.

"A touchscreen device is governed by the size of your fingers," says Baudisch, who studied human interfaces in Germany before coming to Microsoft. "If you look at home automation systems, they are targeted to a bigger screen size. We're asking: what happens in a few years when a touchscreen is embedded into a watch? It turns out that touchscreens don't do well at these sizes. Since it's difficult to make your fingers transparent, why not make the device transparent?"

The project reminded me of several products Nokia tried a few years ago in which a very small interface was embedded into a locket or other jewelry, but they were still difficult to use. LucidTouch could be used to power very small gaming devices or cell phones.

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Codename: OSLO

In the early days of computing, a model – such as a project organizational chart or the development plan for enterprise software – was a static document built in Microsoft Excel. The problem: in modern software development, models need to become living documents that many people can access, including business analysts, executives, quality assurance testers and project managers.

The OSLO project, named after the city in Norway, is a framework that helps all contributors – both technical and non-technical – access data models in a repository.

"Modeling is something that Bill Gates has talked about as a future trend – it plays an important role in the application life cycle," Kawasaki says.

One project that is part of that effort is OSLO. It contributes three things. One is a repository where you can change definitions of models from developers and architects all the way to data center mapping. Secondly, you need a way to describe the models, so OSLO has a new declarative language. Third, there are visual tools, especially for the non-technical user.

OSLO is like the SharePoint of application development modeling. It breaks out of the traditional app development process where models are used only during development workflows and helps any contributor see data models as they change and evolve. It also addresses the siloed approach so common in the modern development process.

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Visual Studio 2010

Codename: Visual Studio 2010

Visual Studio is the staple of most Microsoft-centric development shops, and the next release (which will likely ship next year) will focus on new collaborative tools, direct access to the OSLO repository for data modeling, and an update of .Net to Version 4.

One of the most compelling new features is the brand new Architecture Explorer, which allows development teams to see a model of the existing development framework and find any existing code assets that are not well categorized.

Other new features include unified modeling language support and a new debugging tool that is especially useful for find non-reproducible bugs by automatically creating data sets.

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Codename: BlueTrack

Laser technology is advancing quickly, and one product proves this point dramatically.

The Microsoft Explorer 1362 mouse (and Explorer Mini 1363) uses a newly invented BlueTrack technology that works on a variety of rough surfaces.

I tested the mouse on metal, wood and tile — it worked perfectly, while a "last gen" laser mouse from Microsoft failed to even move the cursor.

BlueTrack captures 8,000 images per second, casts a much wider and brighter beam, and – most importantly – reads data using a high-contrast sensor.

For those who need mouse precision anywhere, the 1362 model captures data at 4000DPI.

Read the Cool Tool review of the Microsoft Explorer Mini Mouse with BlueTrack.

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Robotic Receptionist

Codename: Robotic Receptionist

Here's a project I can relate to on a personal level, having found myself lost and running late for meetings during my visit to Microsoft in mid-September. The campus consists of more than 100 buildings spread across a wide swatch of Redmond and the surrounding area.

Although it's so new that the only information available on this project comes from a speech by Craig Mundie at the EmTech08 Emerging Technologies Conference held recently, the robotic receptionist project is clearly a sign of how computer technology is evolving. Mundie said in his EmTech keynote that natural interfaces equipped with voice and facial recognition features will become part of our daily lives over the next 10 years and will not require any hands-on input from the user.

The robotic receptionist – which will be used at Microsoft headquarters, likely next year – will help Microsoft visitors find shuttles to get around campus. The receptionist can even identify visitors based on what they are wearing and provide information on shuttle routes using GPS tracking data.

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