If you think computers make your life complicated today, just
wait a few years.
How are you going to control your PC when the screen is 20 feet
across instead of 20 inches? How are you going to find a favorite
picture when your library of digital photos grows into the
thousands? How can you keep on top of the news when hundreds of
stories arrive every day from around the world?
Microsoft, you'll be relieved to know, is hard at work on answers
to all these problems.
On Wednesday, the Redmond, Wash., company presented a ``research
road show'' at its corporate campus in Mountain View to show what
kind of deep thoughts it's possible to think when you have all the
money in the world.
Microsoft is so rich that it supports a research group of 700
people, including 25 scientists in Mountain View and six in San
The road show presented 10 projects these big brains are
exploring. Here's some that caught my eye, keeping in mind that it
will years, if ever, before these ideas become actual products:
• Big displays. The
whole point-and-click concept of controlling a computer desktop with
a mouse, originally developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center,
only works well when you're sitting two feet from a relatively small
Giant flat-panel displays will eventually become affordable and
will be very useful, making it practical to have numerous windows
open at once. But mouse movements will have to be much more
efficient to cope.
Drag-and-Pop is a Microsoft idea to create lines resembling
rubber bands on the screen whenever you move an icon toward a
distant object. If you start sliding a document icon toward the
recycle bin, for example, the Drag-and-Pop rubber band appears
immediately. With a click, you can attach the document to the rubber
band and have it snapped into the recycle bin -- without dragging
the document all the way across the screen.
• Automatic news
summaries. One of the most elusive goals of computer science is
``natural language processing,'' teaching a computer to understand
what humans mean when we talk or write.
Microsoft is working on a ``newsbot'' that can analyze incoming
news stories from many sources, recognizing which stories cover the
same topic and making a written summary of each group.
When a big news event happens now, online newsbots will stuff
your inbox with a dozen stories delivering the same information.
With natural language processing, newsbots could tell you the news
once and limit subsequent stories to those providing new or
• Photo indexing. With
all the time in the world, we could carefully index every digital
photo we shoot, listing who's in the picture and where it was taken.
In real life, the only information we have is the time and date
stamp created by the camera.
MediaFrame is a Microsoft project that, among other things,
analyzes the contents of an image. If you're looking at a picture of
a sunset, you can click a button to quickly find every other picture
in your photo library that shows a sunset. The software can
distinguish with a fair degree of accuracy between pictures taken
outdoors as opposed to indoors, and can find pictures that have
faces in them.
calculations. I've come to depend on services such as Mapquest
and Yahoo Maps to tell me how to drive from Point A to Point B.
Figuring out driving directions currently takes a huge amount of
computing horsepower, too much for handheld devices such as personal
digital assistants and mobile phones to do the job themselves.
Microsoft researchers have figured out a shortcut. By
pre-calculating distances between a small number of fixed points,
mapping software does much less work to find shortest routes. So
your PDA or cell phone may soon know which way to go.
• TerraServer. It's not
true that Microsoft has more money than the U.S. government, but
that doesn't keep Microsoft from lending a hand to Uncle Sam.
For six years, Microsoft has provided software and hardware to
the U.S. Geologic Survey for TerraServer (http://www.terraserver-usa.com/),
a free Web site with black-and-white aerial photographs covering
almost the entire nation. The database is now being upgraded to
present most populated areas in color, with 1-foot resolution --
small enough to pick out people on sidewalks. Microsoft sees
TerraServer as a demonstration of how to manage a large database;
the expanded aerial photo library is 21 terabytes, equal to 21
Color photos of the Bay Area should be posted on the site in
about a month.