Microsoft Research inventions are wacky and useful

Flying bikes, cell phone robots, smart walking sticks and audio speakers that defy logic are inventions all on display Tuesday at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

On the second day of the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, Microsoft researchers and their academic partners showed off some of their projects. They ranged from the wacky to the relatively staid.

The Flying Bike is a project that would let users ride a stationary bike that is integrated into a video game. In the demonstration, the game was Flight Simulator X and players have to pedal fast enough to stay airborne in the game. But Yolanda Rankin, a computer science researcher at Northwestern University and one of the developers of the project, envisions lots of other games that users could play using the bike, such as racing games and shooter games where players must flee or chase opponents.

InkSeine is an application that tightly integrates search with pen computing. Users can write a word on the screen with a special pen. Holding down a button on the pen and drawing a circle around the word pops up a menu that allows users to search for the term online or on the hard drive.

InkSeine has other unique user interface features: Making a circular motion with the pen on the screen will scroll a Web page down. It’s an easier movement than trying to touch the small box in the narrow column on the right side of the screen with the pen and then pull it down.

One of the more amazing inventions on display is Personal Audio Space. In the demo, 16 small speakers in a vertical line simultaneously play two songs: a rock song and a piece of classical music. Up close, they let off a cacophony of sound. But standing on one X marked on the floor around five feet from the speakers, a listener only hears the rock song. Standing on another X about two feet away next to the first, a listener hears only the classical music.

The technology could be used in a variety of applications, said Ivan Tashev, one of the Microsoft researchers working on the project. In a shared office, two workers could listen to music or their phones without bothering the other. Two people could sit on their front porch at home, each listening to their own favorite music. A baby sitter could watch TV with a baby asleep in the next room, because the speakers could be used simply to direct sound to one place.

The system works by distorting the audio so that it cancels out in some areas and steers the sound into others. Ultimately, the system could use cameras and microphones to detect where a person is and then point the sound to that person on the fly, Tashev said.

Oscar Almeida, another Microsoft researcher, showed off a prototype of a walking stick that uses a gyro sensor to detect stability. When it detects instability, it could send a message warning a caretaker that the user might have fallen. The technology is a better idea, he said, than those that might simply detect when a walking stick is horizontal, which could lead to lots of false negatives and positives.

Another fun project on display was the result of Microsoft researcher Brian Cross' idea for how to use mobile phones that are discarded when users upgrade. His Wimobot is a small robot that uses the phone as its "brain," he said. In his demonstration, he sends a text message that is a small program from a phone to the phone in the robot. The program instructs the robot to lower a pen onto the white board it sits on and draw a square.

Andy Wilson, also a company researcher, is developing a device that could serve as a less expensive form of the surface computer that Microsoft recently unveiled. That computer will cost thousands of dollars. Wilson's invention uses a projector to display an application onto any surface, like a table top. Two infrared lasers pointed at the surface would allow users to grab and drag items with their hands.

The company developers who showed off the projects work in Microsoft Research, a group of around 800 researchers developing about 60 projects. In his opening remarks on Tuesday at the summit, Rico Malvar, managing director of Microsoft Research, said

that the mission of the group is to expand the state of the art in areas it does research, rapidly turn innovative technologies into Microsoft products and ensure that Microsoft products have a future.

Without getting more precise, he said the group uses a small portion of Microsoft’s $7 billion research and development budget.

Must read: 11 hidden tips and tweaks for Windows 10
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies