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June, 2011

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections 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.

June, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    The Promise of Games in Lifelong Learning

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    We are pleased to announce the launch of a program that is designed to support collaborations between Microsoft Research Connections and major research institutions to build the foundations for a unified game layer for education. Our first official project is Just Press Play, an experiment to craft gameful experiences for the students of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) undergraduate game design program. (Gameful experiences incorporate the use of game play mechanics that focus on the user's intrinsic motivation, engaging the user in a way that can produce long-lasting and powerful results.) You can learn more about the project by visiting the Just Press Play developer blog.

    Just Press Play: Students bringing gameful experiences to education.

    Just Press Play: Students bringing gameful experiences to education.

    Microsoft Research has a long-standing commitment to games for learning, which began more than a decade ago with our support of Henry Jenkins and the MIT Education Arcade through programs like Games to Teach and iCampus. This work complemented games research that was being performed by Michel Pahud, Andy Wilson, and other Microsoft researchers. More recently, we founded the Games for Learning Institute, a consortium of 8 universities, 14 principal investigators, and a small army of graduate students whose mission is to find out what makes games fun, what makes them educational, and to develop patterns that assist developers in the creation of effective educational games.

    One of those principal investigators is Andrew Phelps, director of the RIT School of Interactive Games and Media. Andy began his experiments with games for learning in 2003, when he created the Multi-User Programming Pedagogy for Enhancing Traditional Study (MUPPETS) to teach computational thinking through 3-D graphics and animation. More recently, he and Jessica Bayliss began pushing the boundaries of games in the classroom by conducting an experiment to award experience points to students in lieu of grades. In collaboration with Elizabeth Lawley, director of the RIT Lab for Social Computing and creator of the citizen heritage experiment, Picture the Impossible, he began to develop a much more ambitious idea: create a “frame game” that wraps around the most common activities that are inherent to student life at RIT. In other words, he is developing a platform that deeply integrates with the school’s core student information systems in order to create gameful experiences for students that pervade their online experience, versus their person-to-person interactions. By using this platform and the resulting experiences, he can gather data on student activities, improve student motivation, and reduce attrition in the IGM freshman class.

    The Just Press Play experiment is an important first step in bringing gameful experiences to education, but it is only the beginning. Throughout the year, we intend to announce additional partnerships with other researchers and organizations to build out the foundations of a unified game layer for education. This layer is similar to the social layer developed in the first decade of the twenty-first century to support a unified representation of identity and social networks across websites and applications. The social layer is arguably complete with the creation of the Open Graph protocol and applications such as Bing Social Search. Now we need to begin work on another layer, one that will instrument our everyday experiences, transform these experiences into gameful experiences and, by doing so, provide the inputs to entirely new capabilities such as e-portfolios, adaptive learning, and project-based learning.

    Intrinsic motivation is a primary goal of the game layer, but there are other benefits as well. Because a great deal of data is needed to power these gameful experiences, we are encouraging participants to instrument their the online experience versus person-to-person interactions in a way similar to how Foursquare encourages players to keep track of the places they visit. This instrumentation provides entirely new insights into the worlds of students and educators. It enables large-scale longitudinal studies that span the many institutions of learning that we travel through over the course of our lives. It is the promise of true lifelong learning environments to teach twenty-first-century skills and guide our students along a rewarding journey of lifelong learning. We look forward to inviting you to the game!

    Donald Brinkman, Research Program Manager, Games for Learning, Digital Heritage, Digital Humanities, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Arming the Immune System Against HIV

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    Learn how the immune system fights HIV-infected cells

    In the now decades-long battle against HIV and AIDS, researchers have been stymied by the virus’s ability to evade attacks by our immune system.

    Normally, a cell that is infected by a pathogen displays on its surface characteristic pieces of the pathogen peptides, known as epitopes, which are then recognized by the body’s immune system and trigger immune responses. HIV-infected cells produce these epitopes, but because HIV mutates so readily, so do the epitopes, leading to an ongoing struggle between our immune system and HIV. Therefore, scientists have been eager to gain a better understanding of the process of epitope production in HIV-infected individuals in the hope that such knowledge could lead to ways to beat HIV at this game.

    Recent work on the degradation of HIV proteins in infected cells has provided new insight into the process of HIV epitope presentation. This important research was conducted by a team at the Ragon Institute (a joint venture of Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University), with contributions from Carl Kadie and myself at the eScience Group of Microsoft Research. The paper was published online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) on May 9, 2011, and will appear in the June issue of JCI’s print publication.

    The Ragon team, which was led by Sylvie Le Gall and included Estibaliz Lazaro, Pamela Stamegna, Shao Chong Zhang, Pauline Gourdain, Nicole Y. Lai, Mei Zhang, and Sergio A. Martinez, examined the stability of short HIV peptides in the cytosol of human cells. They discovered that the stability of these HIV-derived peptides is extremely variable: some degraded within seconds, while others remained largely intact after an hour.

    The Ragon team observed that peptide stability is crucial to determining how much of the epitope will be displayed on the cell surface: the less peptide degradation in the cytosol, the more epitope will be present on the surface of an infected cell.

    Carl and I then performed a computational analysis of the residues of 166 tested HIV peptides, looking for specific biochemical features that characterized stable and unstable peptides. This enabled us to identify multiple motifs or patterns that allow us to predict how stable or unstable a given epitope will be. A prediction tool based on our findings is available online.

    So, what is the value in predicting epitope stability? To answer that question, we first need to know that some researchers believe HIV has both protective and non-protective epitopes. When infected cells are attacked by the immune system, protective epitopes force the virus to mutate into a version that will not survive, protecting an individual against chronic HIV infection. Non-protective epitopes, in contrast, do not induce a protective immune response. We also need to understand that epitopes are cross-reactive, which means that when the immune system learns to fight a specific epitope, it can also recognize and attack similar epitopes. Suppose, therefore, we know that HIV epitope X is protective but is also unstable. That means it won’t be produced in large quantities and thus will likely not be a successful target for an immune response. But if by using the results of our research we could identify an epitope X-prime that is cross-reactive to X but more stable, we could then develop a vaccine based on X-prime that would yield a strong immune response to both X-prime and X. This would enable the immune system to more effectively attack HIV-infected cells that express the X epitope and thereby weaken the virus.

    Our collaboration with the Ragon Institute has uncovered a path that will better help us present pieces of HIV to activate the immune system and thus hopefully design an effective vaccine against HIV. It has been extremely productive and rewarding.

    David Heckerman, Senior Director, eScience Research Group, Microsoft Research

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    Natural User Interface Leaps Forward with Release of Kinect for Windows SDK Beta

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    Be part of the movement. Download the Kinect for Windows SDK beta.

    As astute readers of this blog will recall, back in April we reported on the progress of the non-commercial Kinect for Windows Software Development Kit (SDK), offering tantalizing descriptions of its capabilities and inviting you to follow its progress on a dedicated website. Well, I’m pleased to announce that the wait is over: the Kinect for Windows SDK beta was released on June 16, 2011, enabling the next phase of bringing natural user interfaces (NUI) to the PC.

    Designed to empower developers, academic researchers, and enthusiasts to explore new ideas and create rich applications, the Kinect for Windows SDK beta, which works with Windows 7, enables human motion tracking, voice recognition, and depth sensing on PCs. The SDK includes drivers, rich APIs for raw sensor streams and natural user interfaces, installation documents, and resource materials. It provides Kinect capabilities to developers who build applications with C++, C#, or Visual Basic by using Microsoft Visual Studio 2010. SDK features include:

    • Raw Sensor Streams: Access to raw data streams from the depth sensor, color camera sensor, and four-element microphone array allows developers to build upon the low-level streams that are generated by the Kinect sensor.
    • Skeletal Tracking: The capability to track the skeleton image of one or two people moving within the Kinect field of view makes it easy to create gesture-driven applications.
    • Advanced Audio Capabilities: Audio processing capabilities include sophisticated acoustic noise suppression and echo cancellation, beam formation to identify the current sound source, and integration with the Windows speech recognition API.
    • Sample Code and Documentation: The SDK contains more than 100 pages of technical documentation. In addition to built-in help files, the documentation includes detailed walkthroughs for most samples provided with the SDK.
    • Easy Installation: The SDK quickly installs in a standard way for Windows, requires no complex configuration, and the complete installer size is smaller than 100 MB. Developers can get up and running in just a few minutes with a standard standalone Kinect sensor unit (widely available at retail outlets).

    Just prior to this general release, we hosted a select group of researchers and enthusiasts at a 24-hour coding marathon here on our Redmond, Washington, campus. These developers were encouraged to build applications in areas of interest to them, including everything from gaming and entertainment to healthcare, science, and education. Their projects are being broadcast on Channel 9 Live on June 16, and can be viewed on demand after the fact. Highlights can be found on Microsoft News Center.

     As Anoop Gupta, a distinguished scientist at Microsoft Research stated, “The Kinect for Windows SDK beta from Microsoft Research opens up a world of possibilities for developers to unleash the power of Kinect technology on PCs. We are just at the beginning of Microsoft’s long-term vision for how people will interact with technology more naturally and intuitively.”

    All I can add is a question: What are you waiting for? Click on over to the SDK download site, and start building those NUI applications. The SDK is free for development of non-commercial applications, and the only boundaries are those set by your own imagination!

    Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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