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April, 2011

Microsoft Research Outreach Blog

The Microsoft Research Outreach blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

April, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Outreach Blog

    Celebrating an Out-of-This-World Earth Day


    Earth Day - How will you celebrate your environment?

    It may seem like an unlikely way to celebrate Earth Day, but this year, students at the University of Washington (UW) can mark the occasion with an exhilarating virtual trip away from our small blue planet, thanks to a unique collaboration between Microsoft Research Redmond and the UW Planetarium 

    By incorporating digital images streamed from Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope (WWT), a computer program that brings together imagery from the world's best ground- and space-based telescopes, the UW Planetarium has gone beyond the typical static display of the heavens. WWT provides students with detailed views of the night sky through an incredible 3-D experience.

    In the past, the UW Planetarium used a star-ball to project an image of the night sky on the building's domed ceiling. This is the tried-and-true method of showing the constellations and brighter stars, but it lacks the ability of zooming into details of objects like nebulae and seeing the birth of new stars. Couple that with the excitement of 3-D—a feeling that you're actually flying through the solar system—and you take student engagement to a whole new level.

    The new projection system was a result of a two-year collaboration and cost approximately US$30,000—a bargain compared to equipping a planetarium with standard digital technology, which involves the installation of dedicated digital projection systems and can run half a million dollars or more. This low-cost system—created jointly by the UW Department of Astronomy and Microsoft researchers (especially WWT developer Jonathan Fay)—uses six modified home-theater projectors, each of which projects a portion of the digital image onto the dome. Software enables the perfect alignment of the six images and a resolution of 8 million pixels.

    The UW planetarium also allows attendees to see the Terapixel image—the largest and clearest image of the night sky ever produced—in all its glory. Not only is the UW's digital planetarium a boon to students, it also serves as a model for inexpensive digitization of planetariums around the world. While you're waiting for digital projection to reach an institution near you, you can fire up your PC and go to the WorldWide Telescope site. There you can zoom among the stars, albeit on a much smaller (and flatter) screen. Or, if you happen to be in Seattle, check out the UW Planetarium shows that are open to the general public and get lost in the stars.

    Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment at Microsoft Research Connections

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    Aloha: Text from the Cloud


    Time to celebrate: we are releasing the Hawaii OCR (optical character recognition) service this week! This OCR service is the next step in the evolution of Project Hawaii, the Microsoft Research project that is exploring how to take full advantage of the cloud to enhance the use of smartphones. With Hawaii OCR, you can use your smartphone's camera to take a picture of an object that contains text (in Roman characters), send the image to the cloud, and in return receive a Unicode string of the text. This text string can be used in a number of interesting scenarios, such as translation of street signs or restaurant menus.

    Adding OCR to the computational, mapping, and identification services in Project Hawaii is another step in our journey to create a set of cloud-enabled mobile applications and support services. Our current platform consists of a Windows Phone 7 smartphone and several cloud services, including Relay, Rendezvous, Speech to Text, and Windows Azure for computation and data storage.

    Team Dynovader visits Microsoft Research in Redmond

    Team Dynovader visits the Microsoft Research, Redmond lab.
    Pictured left to right: Evie Gillie (teaching assistant), Vignan Pattamatta, Mike Ortiz, Arjmand Samuel (Microsoft Research), Naran Bayanbat, Forrest Lin, Lu Li

    In related news, we welcomed a group of Project Hawaii collaborators from Stanford University to our Redmond, Washington, lab in late March. Our guests were students in Jay Borenstein's Computer Science 210 (CS210) course, which provides students the opportunity to collaborate on a real-world project with a corporate partner. This semester, Microsoft Research is sponsoring a CS210 cadre on Project Hawaii. The student group, named Team Dynovader, is working on a citizen science project called myScience, enabling scientists to crowdsource data collection for their research projects at the click of a button. No coding is required by the scientists. It allows Windows Phone 7 users to contribute data to various citizen science projects that use the same mobile app.

    Here's how it works: scientists will go to the myScience website and launch a citizen science project. It is then automatically deployed to users who download myScience from the Windows Phone Marketplace. Users can browse through a catalog of projects and contribute to those they find interesting. The data is then stored in the cloud, and made available to scientists via our website.

    Team Dynovader believes that myScience will transform the way observational research is conducted in the future. Imagine a network of thousands of mobile phones—each with a camera, microphone, GPS, and accelerometer—conducting observations and pushing the data to a central repository.

    To quote Scott R. Loarie, a scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution, Stanford University, "Mobile phones coordinated through citizen-science projects are emerging as a powerful new tool for data collection. They rival distributed sensors, such as satellites, in their ability to scale and complement these systems, because boots on the ground brandishing cellphones can detect many things that fixed sensors cannot."

    Team Dynovader presesents myScience project to Microsoft Researchers

    Team Dynovader presents myScience project to Microsoft Researchers

     We are looking forward to the release of myScience and its adoption by scientists. Good luck Team Dynovader!

    Arjmand Samuel, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Springtime in Paris and Software Is in the Air


    Software Summit 2011 in ParisWhat could be better than Paris on a spring day?  How about Paris on a spring day at the inaugural Software Summit sponsored by Microsoft Research?

    Yes, I'm here at the Microsoft Le Campus in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just southwest of central Paris, along with more than 200 of the foremost figures in the European computer-science community.  The Summit underscores the importance of European research and innovation and brings together thought leaders from Europe's high-powered industrial research, academic, and the scientific communities. With so much intellectual wattage on hand, we might need to dim the house lights. Seriously, I'm looking forward to a stimulating three days of panels, workshops, and demos on the state of software research and development.

    Andrew Herbert, chairman of Microsoft Research EMEA, is serving as the Summit host, and Judith Bishop, director of Computer Science for Microsoft Research Connections, is the program chair for the event.

    I'm honored to present one of the event's four keynote addresses, joining Ken Wood, deputy managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge and head of the Computer-Mediated Living group; Wolfram Schulte, principal researcher and founding manager of the Research in Software Engineering team at Microsoft Research Redmond; and Brendan Eich, chief technical officer of the Mozilla Corp. and creator of the JavaScript scripting language. 

    One of the first-day highlights of the Summit was an update on the Kinect for Windows SDK (software development kit) to be released this spring. Echoing yesterday's announcement at the MIX developer conference in Las Vegas, we unveiled three key features of the upcoming Kinect for Windows SDK: robust skeletal tracking, advanced audio capabilities, and XYZ depth camera.  We also announced the launch of a new website for the SDK, where you can subscribe to a newsfeed and be notified as soon as the SDK is available for download. Our hope is that this "starter kit" for application developers will make it easier for the academic research and enthusiast communities to create even richer experiences using Kinect technology. 

    I'm also thrilled to report here on many of the ground-breaking tools and technologies being featured at the Summit, among them F#, a simple and efficient programming language ideal for data-rich, concurrent, and algorithmic development; Pex4fun, a game that awards points for writing code; Project Hawaii, a venture that is exploring how to leverage the cloud to enhance the use of smartphones; and Academic Search, a free search engine that provides quick information about academic researchers' papers, conferences, and journals.

    Above all, I want to stress that the Summit underlines Microsoft Research's long-term commitment to collaboration with the academic and scientific community in Europe, which is an essential part of our ongoing efforts to advance computer science and technology. In that regard, I would especially like to point out the role of Microsoft Research Cambridge, which is home to more 150 dedicated, innovation-minded researchers and supports over 100 Ph.D. students, has hosted 465 student interns over the past seven years, and is currently sponsoring 25 active collaborative research projects. I also want to call out Microsoft Research's three joint research institutes—at the University of Trento, INRIA, and the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre—as well as the European Microsoft Innovation Center in Aachen, Germany, and the new Microsoft Cloud Computing and Interoperability Center, which opened in Brussels just last month.

    I'll be back shortly with more news from the Summit.  Now, however, I've got to polish that keynote address.

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     —Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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