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Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Last updated 8:23 a.m. PT

Microsoft demonstration photo
Andy Rogers / P-I
Prabal Dutta of the University of California-Berkeley listens as Patrick Baudisch of Microsoft Research demonstrates LucidTouch at the annual Microsoft Research TechFest in Redmond. LucidTouch is a prototype that doesn't let your fingers get in the way of the touch screen, instead allowing users to manipulate a portable device by touching the screen from behind. Microsoft introduced about 40 research projects Tuesday at a preview for media and academics.

TechFest takes a worldview

Microsoft innovations map safest routes, look deep into universe

By TODD BISHOP
P-I REPORTER

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:

  • LucidTouch, a prototype that lets people control a portable touch-screen device by placing their fingers on the back of the case. A camera attached to the back of the device sees where the hands are positioned and renders a shadowy image of them on the 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.

  • New online search prototypes. One, called SearchTogether, is an Internet Explorer plug-in that puts a sidebar into the Web browser. It's meant for collaborating on multiple computers, possibly in different locations. In the sidebar, each person can see and follow the Web searches that a friend or co-worker has conducted related to their project or common interest.

  • Prototype home-automation software that accesses online data about fluctuations in energy prices throughout the day, then uses those data to determine the most cost-effective times to turn on the heat.

  • An online prototype called "Blews" that shows how many conservative and liberal blogs are linking to specific online news stories. Among other things, the researchers used machine learning to identify the level of emotion in particular blog posts. The site isn't yet available publicly, but one goal is to give people a way to expose themselves to alternative views.

    "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."

  • P-I reporter Todd Bishop can be reached at 206-448-8221 or toddbishop@seattlepi.com. Read his Microsoft blog at blog.seattlepi.com/microsoft.
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