Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Last updated 8:23 a.m. PT
Microsoft Corp. may have come up with a cure for the common pothole -- or at least an easier way for drivers to avoid one.
Researchers at the company have developed a way to use the technology embedded in mobile phones to automatically sense when a car brakes suddenly, hits a bump in the road or comes within earshot of honking horns. Their prototype can gather the data from accelerometers, GPS devices and microphones increasingly built into mobile phones.
The idea is to automatically aggregate the data from the phones in an online service that gives new insights into road and traffic conditions.
"Instead of saying, 'Give me the shortest route,' you could say, 'Give me the safest route,' " said Ram Ramjee, a senior researcher from the company's research lab in Bangalore, India.
That was one of the projects on display Tuesday at the annual Microsoft Research TechFest. Dubbed Traffic Sense, the project reflects a broader movement by the company toward systems that can collect and process data from a variety of sources to create new views of the world.
Not to mention the universe. One of the projects on display was the WorldWide Telescope program, which assembles detailed images of space to let users quickly zoom from galaxy to galaxy. The program is expected to be released publicly this spring.
Microsoft Research holds the annual TechFest event on the Redmond campus to give its product groups and managers a glimpse of the latest technologies the company's researchers are developing. The idea is to help get those technologies out of the labs and into the company's products.
It doesn't always work that way. Rick Rashid, the senior vice president in charge of Microsoft Research, talked Tuesday about a long list of research projects that contributed to Microsoft's commercial offerings, but also referred to the company's late arrival in a key online market.
"We're a great early-warning system. We'll say things like, 'You know, this Internet search thing, it could be big someday,' " he said, referring to the research division's early work on search technologies. "People don't always listen to us," he added, to laughter from the audience.
The company brought out actor Alan Alda, host of PBS' "Scientific American Frontiers," for an onstage conversation with Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer.
"How long will you stick with an exploration if it seems there's no hope of it producing a product?" Alda asked Mundie.
Mundie said there was no general answer he could give. However, he added, "The one thing that has been an attribute of the company, commercially, forever is we're very persistent."
About 40 research projects were shown Tuesday at a preview for media and academics, but that was only a portion of the projects that employees will see in the coming days. Many more were kept secret in rooms closed during the event.
Here's a sampling of the projects on display:
The technology is meant to address the fact that fingers can block people from seeing what they're pressing on small, touch-screen devices. Patrick Baudisch of Microsoft Research said future versions of the prototype will drop the attached camera and use embedded sensing technology.
"To make myself angry in the mornings, I'll look at what conservatives are talking about most, with the most emotion," explained Sumit Basu, a Microsoft researcher, using himself as an example. "If you're going to be a politically active person, you can't live inside a shell."
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