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Microsoft's TechFest Tinged with 'Green'

Situated Interaction project at Microsoft Research TechFest 2009
The Situated Interaction project at Microsoft Research TechFest 2009
Source: Microsoft
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Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) researchers generally trot out their coolest projects to show off at the annual Microsoft Research TechFest, a sort of super science fair for the company's research division.

This year is no different. The company's researchers showed off some 40 projects out of hundreds of ongoing experiments.

For example, company researchers showed off new and evolving developments and concepts such as a virtual office receptionist. In one scenario, the receptionist could carry on a brief voice conversation with an employee and fetch a campus shuttle bus for transportation.

"Over the next couple of decades, the way we interact with computers will change," Eric Horvitz, principal researcher, said on a video explaining the receptionist project. "[A technology called] 'situated interaction' aims at giving computers more reasoning abilities and the capability to understand the pace and flow of conversation and how interactions between people occur," Horvitz added.

However, this year's TechFest aims for a little less glitz, and a bit more practicality.

At last year's TechFest, Microsoft researchers showed off the WorldWide Telescope, an experimental application that merges images from many of the world's major telescopes, including ones in orbit as well as radio telescopes, into a Web application that lets users explore the known universe one click at a time.

However, TechFest 2009, along with the glitz and magic, includes demos of projects aimed at lowering costs associated with running data centers, as well as technologies meant to work with Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) emerging cloud services computing initiative.

TechFest started in 2001 as a way for Microsoft Research to show off its technologies and projects to the company's product groups, hopefully finding a home for some of that work in Microsoft's commercial products and services.

Microsoft Research (MSR) itself was formed in 1991, to produce a basic research organization much like leading innovative labs like Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where many argue the future of the graphical PC, the Ethernet, and the laser printer, as well as many other key technologies, began.

MSR has since grown to be one of the largest basic research organizations around the globe, with labs in England, China, and India, as well as in the U.S. – in Redmond, Wash., the Bay Area, and Boston.

Tuesday, lab chief Rick Rashid, announced a new research organization dubbed Cloud Computing Futures (CCF), which will be "focused on reducing the operational costs of data centers and increasing their adaptability and resilience to failure," according to a Microsoft statement. The goal of the project is to lower data center costs by 400 percent, the statement said. That may turn out to be of major importance for Microsoft, given its developing cloud services initiative and the mega data centers the company is building to support it.

Rashid, who is senior vice president of Microsoft Research, appointed Dan Reed, who is currently managing director of scalable and multicore systems, to head the new organization. "The Cloud Computing Futures work begins with a key concept: the data center is a computer, and it must be designed and programmed as an integrated system," according to a Microsoft statement.

"In past years we’ve shown touch technologies that are now part of Microsoft Surface, artificial intelligence projects that enhanced Live Search and Windows, and database and graphics research that led to WorldWide Telescope," the statement said, quoting Rashid.

In one demonstration, presented by Jim Larus, Microsoft Research director of software architectures on the CCF team, showed off a prototype rack of data center servers designed to consume significantly less power than a conventional data center by using low-power CPUs originally meant for use in netbooks. The idea is to get more computing power while using less energy in the giant data centers that Microsoft is in the process of building.

"These [Microsoft data centers] are very, very large plants running tens of thousands of servers that consume enormous amounts of energy and enormous amounts of cooling," Larus said on a video demo of the prototype.

Larus demoed a rack holding 50 servers each built around a netbook CPU. The rack itself and the servers had no cooling fans except for individual fans on the processors.

"You might need more of them, but since they use one-tenth or one-twentieth as much power, it uses less power [than a rack of conventional servers]," Larus said.

"The goal of the CCF project is to identify, create, and evaluate new, potentially disruptive innovations that can enable new software and application capabilities while also reducing the cost of building and operating cloud services," Reed said in a Q&A posted on Microsoft's website.

Indeed, Microsoft views its research division as a key investment in the company's future.

"Even in the most difficult economic situations, it's critically important that companies continue to invest," Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, said on one video. "In the worst economic times, the companies that have performed the best are the ones that have new products that lead the way out of economic turbulence," Mundie added.