RealTime IT News

Microsoft Previews Surreal Future

SAN FRANCISCO - Plunk your digital camera down on a specially-equipped table and all of the images stored within the camera are projected onto the surface in a nice fan fold, as if someone took the time to lay them out.

Or how about getting help from a remote colleague who projects a virtual image of her hands to point out corrections in a document? Forget what you did last week? Look it up on your LifeBrowser, which tracks and records where you went on the Web, what you worked on and who you met with.

It may all sound futuristic, at least for near term commercial deployment, but Microsoft Research said it's running all these applications for real. "This is not simulation, it's all done with a standard PC, very complex software and machine vision tricks," Eric Horvitz, principal researcher at Microsoft , told

Horvitz spoke on a panel here today at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, along with research executives from Intel  and IBM . Horvitz said he's been using a prototype of the LifeBrowser for several years and has found it invaluable.

"The fact that people haven't been able to capture all their life events like this is a disaster," he said. "I'd like to see LifeBrowser in common use in the next three to five years."

The system is more than a browser tracking system, it also involves software and sensors that would, for example, record how much time you spent working on a document. Using a graphical slider you could go back to call up the specific Web sites you visited on a specific day or what files you used.

It may all sound a bit creepy and Horvitz conceded as much. "When people hear me say I'm from Microsoft and we can use technology to track everything you're doing…" he said, leaving the sentence unfinished as the audience laughed. "We believe at Microsoft, solving the privacy challenge will be critical for enabling these technologies. It's a major focus on many of our campuses."

In the case of LifeBrowser and other technologies Microsoft is developing, he said there is an emphasis on storing the information locally, not on the Internet. The idea is your personal PC or maybe a home network server would be the repository of this information to keep it private.

"Surface computing" is another Microsoft Research initiative. It's a lunchbox-sized gizmo that includes sensors and 3D projection and can connect wirelessly to a Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as a camera, to project images of what the device has stored. The system also recognizes human gestures. A video demonstration showed how a user could navigate a virtual projected image of screens from Microsoft's Virtual Earth using hand gestures.

"It really makes a difference when you can 'feel' the data," said Horvitz.

Intel looks to leverage multi-core

Jerry Bautista, director of technology management at Intel, discussed the chip giant's continued emphasis on multi-core technology in its research. The company has previewed an 80-core processor in the past and Bautista said such systems will be critical to processing the kinds of applications Microsoft's Horvitz discussed.

As an example of a fun consumer benefit, Bautista showed a video from Intel labs of a two hour soccer match. Intel software uses the processing of multi-core chips to automatically generate a ten minute highlights video of the match based partly on speech recognition and particular points of emphasis of the play-by-play announcers.

IBM sticking with PASTA

Paul Bloom, a business executive with IBM's Communications Sector Research, said "presence" technology is emerging as a hugely important technology trend.

One IBM research effort is called PASTA (Presence Advanced Services for Telco Applications). PASTA is designed to automatically enable mobile devices and networks to track and learn users whereabouts and preferences as they commute between work and home.

In one example, he described how a hospital might use the technology to automatically locate doctors and also recognize when they can't or shouldn't be disturbed (e.g. when visiting with patients).