10 Microsoft research projects

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

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Codename: Touch Wall

Like Wilson's Pictionaire project, the Microsoft Touch Wall -- which Bill Gates demoed during his keynote at CES 2008 -- is a new software-driven computing paradigm. It's partly a multi-touch hardware interface (for example a wall-sized version of the iPhone) but primarily a new software interface that works remarkably similar to the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise controls a computer with his hands. Sands started out working on interactive television systems 13 years ago and developed early prototypes in the mid-1990s. He also worked on the MS-NBC and Slate Magazine launches, working on interactive media.

"We needed to come up with something beyond the typical PowerPoint and whiteboard idea -- things like video and interactive media to demonstrate rather than tell what the future might be like," Sands says. "We want to put out plausible scenarios that leverage today's technology."

The Touch Wall is more like an operating system than software. There is a large white background with several objects on the screen -- documents, video, music, slideshows. You can zoom in on the interface by flicking out with two hands. You can play a video or slideshow by clicking with a finger. Most impressively, you can mix and match media on the same large-screen display, playing a video in one corner and holding a video chat with someone in another corner. Like Microsoft Surface, multiple people can use the Touch Wall at the same time and interact with other people using a Touch Wall somewhere else.

Touch Wall is primarily a user interface and not an operating system -- it runs on a standard PC in Windows Vista using an LCD rear projector and a two-way glass panel. Sensors attached to the side of the Touch Wall read movements and feed them to the interface, which is called Plex. However, like the Surface table, it's possible the Touch Wall will be developed into a standalone product that could be used for meetings and sales presentations, or one day in homes as a natural interface.

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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