Microsoft Researchers Look to Outer Space

P>At this week’s TechFest event held by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Research, the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) has garnered plenty of attention.

WWT, which will be available this spring, is 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 in incredibly high resolution with the click of a mouse.

The WWT project has, to date, gathered some 4 terabytes of sky data. Basically, researchers say it’s a “virtual telescope” that enables users to zoom in on whatever star system, galaxy, white dwarf, supernova or other celestial phenomena they choose by viewing data stored on the Web.

“[With WWT] … you’re not confined to just using telescopes, you’re not confined to data from only one data source. What [the researchers] have done is really pull all of these things together, working with top astronomers and top astronomy laboratories around the world,” Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research (MSR), said during TechFest’s opening day. That includes NASA.

The annual event started several years ago as a way to let Microsoft’s product developers see the experimental technologies the company’s basic research division is studying.

MSR began in 1991, initially with just Rashid, who had been a professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University. The division now has nearly 800 researchers from all over the world, including Redmond, Wash.; Silicon Valley; Beijing; Bangalore, India; the U.K.; and Cambridge, Mass.

During the opening ceremonies, Rashid admitted he was initially skeptical of holding such an event. However, it has turned into a useful way of showcasing MSR’s technologies to the product side of the Microsoft house and has resulted in some of the labs’ basic research becoming applied research — that is, being incorporated into Microsoft products.

“This event is actually one of the ways that we’ve developed to do technology transfer. By getting so many Microsoft employees in here, we really use this as an opportunity to move our ideas out, to get people to think about what kinds of new technologies they can incorporate into their products,” Rashid said.

In fact, MSR technologies that have impacted Microsoft’s products include the company’s Surface computer, a multitouch tabletop unit.

Another technology that made it into product form is Microsoft’s RoundTable 360-degree videoconferencing system, which shipped in October 2007.

Rashid also hailed other less visible successful cases of technology transfer such as parts of the DirectX graphics system and some of the technologies used in the Xbox gaming console. One of MSR’s earliest technology transfer successes was Microsoft Word’s grammar checker.

Still another project, 10 years ago, was the TerraServer, a Web application similar to WWT that let users look up satellite pictures of earth and became the forerunner of Microsoft Virtual Earth.

“Basically, if there’s a Microsoft product, there’s probably something in that product that came from Microsoft Research, or the product was created with technologies that came from Research,” he added.

MSR’s charter sometimes even extends beyond areas of traditional computer science. For instance, one team, headed by Dr. David Heckerman, an MSR computer science researcher and medical doctor, has been working on HIV and malaria vaccine studies.

That is not to say that every technology that MSR has experimented with has been a home run. Take search, for instance.

“You know, we’ll say things like, ‘You know, this Internet search thing, it could be big someday.’ You know? People don’t always listen to us,” Rashid said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Among the demos accessible to the public at TechFest was “Singularity,” a prototype next-generation operating system for use by researchers. Don’t look for it to become the core of any new commercial Microsoft operating system, however.

“Singularity is not the next Windows,” Rashid said. “Think of it like a concept car … a prototype operating system designed from the ground up to test-drive a new paradigm for how operating systems and applications interact with one another.”

Singularity, including the source code, is available for download from Microsoft’s shared source CodePlex site.

Two other demo projects are experiments in how to enable multiple users to collaborate on a common search.

One, called SearchTogether, is designed to enable groups to collaborate on Web searches by showing the group’s query history, while the other, CoSearch, lets people who are sharing a single computer to use multiple mice or mobile phones to search collaboratively.

Another demo, a joint project between MSR and Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs has touch screens on both the front and back of a mobile device used simultaneously. The user’s thumbs touch the front screen, while the other eight fingers touch the back on what’s been termed the LucidTouch see-through mobile device interface.

Demos aside, even if nothing the 800 researchers developed made it into products, MSR serves a vital function for the company.

“We’re a great early warning system,” Rashid said. “Ultimately, we’re about making sure that Microsoft and its products are around 10 years from now.”

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