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December, 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.

December, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    No CS Student Left Behind

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    Students try out TouchDevelopComputer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), which took place this year from December 4 to 10 in the United States, is a celebration of computer science education. And while it’s a great idea to devote a week to recognizing the importance of this field, it’s a topic that demands year-round attention all over the world. That’s why we at Microsoft Research Connections have partnered with the Kent (Washington) School District to provide ongoing support for students and teachers at the district’s tech academies.

    Together, we are working to generate enthusiasm among Kent students for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We chose the Friday before the beginning of CSEdWeek to kick off the partnership with a daylong event designed to reach every seventh- through twelfth-grader at Kent’s two tech academy campuses. Microsoft Research participants included an expert on interaction, media, and visualization browsing; an earth systems scientist (and former NASA employee); as well as a software engineer, a mechanical engineer, and the author of books about quantum mechanics and relativity. These dedicated researchers spent the day teaching how to use Microsoft technology tools (including TouchDevelop and WorldWide Telescope), tutoring on math and science topics, and presenting information about careers in research. Our overarching goal was to help students understand that many of the most difficult problems in the world can be solved by computer science and to excite them about the great career opportunities in STEM.

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    We strongly encouraged the students to continue their computer science education when they attend college. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 2008 and 2018, 1.4 million computing jobs will have opened in the United States. If current graduation rates continue, only 61 percent of these jobs could be filled by U.S. computing degree-earners—a figure that drops to 29 percent when only computing bachelor’s degrees are included (source: NCWIT). This is why CSEdWeek is important on a national level in the United States.

    At the personal level, CSEdWeek and projects like our partnership with the Kent Technology Academy expose students to critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to success in the digital age. Through our efforts to reach K-12 students, we are striving to generate enthusiasm for computing careers, which are not only exciting, plentiful, and financially rewarding, but most importantly, provide an opportunity to tackle some of the world's greatest challenges.

    The classroom visits on December 2 were just the beginning of our partnership with the Kent School District, the fourth largest and one of the most diverse in the state of Washington. Throughout the year, various team members from Microsoft Research will conduct presentations to help the students better understand careers in research and technology. And this spring, the academy’s seventh- and ninth-graders will visit Microsoft Research to see the researchers in their “native habitat.” Additionally, some students will work on using TouchDevelop to create applications for the Windows Phone 7, while others will learn about game programming via a visual object-oriented programming tool called Kodu.

    We look forward to celebrating computer science education year round!

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science at Microsoft Research Connections, and Rane Johnson, Director of Education and Scholarly Communication at Microsoft Research Connections

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    Readers’ Choice: Top 10 Blogs of 2011

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    Microsoft Research Connections: Top 10 Blogs of 2011Recaps of the top 10 news stories of the year—it’s a New Year’s tradition that rivals Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” show. So who are we to buck convention? Therefore, without further ado, here are the top 10 Microsoft Research Connections blogs of 2011, as chosen by your clicks.


    Number 10:
    Kinect for Windows SDK Beta Refresh Available 

    Who can resist building apps for the latest and greatest Kinect sensor? Apparently not the developers who are avid readers of our blog. So let’s raise a cup of cheer, or eggnog, to the intrepid innovators who are using the Kinect for Windows Software Development Kit (SDK) to push the boundaries of natural user interface applications.

    Number 9: Night at the Museum—sans Ben Stiller

    A planetarium show plus a demonstration of the new earth-sciences applications of Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT) took center stage at the California Academy of Sciences. If you thought turning your computer into a world-class telescope was cool, you’ll be blown away by WWT’s ability to create earth-science narratives.

    Number 8: Introducing Chemistry Add-in for Word

    The ancient Egyptians had nothing on us: using chemistry symbols in digital documents can be every bit as cumbersome as carving hieroglyphics into stone. And then came Chemistry Add-in for Word, which makes it easier for students, chemists, and researchers to insert and modify chemical information, such as labels, formulas, and 2-D depictions, from within Microsoft Word.

    Number 7: Digital Research Libraries Get a Boost with Latest Zentity Release

    Research archivists, librarians, and others who have grappled with organizing and accessing voluminous research collections asked for it—and Microsoft Research Connections delivered: the 2.1 release of Zentity. A repository platform designed to manage research objects—such as journal articles, reports, datasets, projects, and people—as well as the relationships among them, Zentity supports arbitrary data models and provides semantically rich functionality that enables users to find and visually explore interesting relationships between elements.

    Number 6: Parallel Processing Software Gets a Boost in Barcelona

    Today, it seems that everything—from smart phones and tablets to PCs and supercomputers—is sprouting extra cores so users can do more. Can Microsoft Research Connections help create parallel code to make the most efficient use of these ubiquitous multi-core processors? Need you ask? A joint venture of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and Microsoft Research Centre (BSCMSRC) is bringing together the expertise of hardware and software researchers to do just that.

    Number 5: Building a .NET Quality Control Tool for Next-Generation Sequencing Technologies

    Quality control—it’s vital in food inspections and DNA sequencing. Unfortunately, not all sequencing technologies produce reliable and accurate results, and experimental data will always contain varying rates of error. That’s where Sequence Quality Control Studio (SeQCoS) can help. A Microsoft .NET software suite designed to perform an array of QC evaluations and post-QC manipulation of sequencing data, SeQCoS generates a series of standard plots that illustrate the quality of the input data.

    Number 4: Women in Technology Hop to It in Portland

    Every year, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology brings the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. This past year was no exception, as some 2,000 attendees descended on Portland, Oregon, to hear about the latest research and explore the roles of women in computer science, information technology, research, and engineering. Microsoft Research Connections was there, too, offering support and free epiphytes (really)!

    Number 3: Chinese University Students Push the Boundaries of Kinect for Windows

    Chinese university students took the Kinect for Windows SDK and pushed it hard, applying the sensor’s depth sensing, voice and object recognition, and human motion tracking capabilities to diverse topics: from education to commerce to culture and history. Their creative and elegant applications far surpass traditional games, demonstrating Kinect’s potential in diverse areas.

    Number 2: Microsoft Research and the Kinect Effect

    Our blog readers are very interested in Kinect! And why not? Thanks to contributions from Microsoft Research, Kinect has state-of-the-art audio, skeletal-tracking, and facial-recognition capabilities. Microsoft built Kinect to revolutionize the way you play games and how you experience entertainment. But along the way, people started applying the “Kinect Effect” in ways we never imagined—from helping children with autism to assisting doctors in the operating room.

    Number 1: Unlocking Academic Success with Frame Games for Learning

    Drumroll please: the top-ranked Microsoft Research Connections blog explored—what else?—a game. But, surprisingly, it isn’t Kinect based! Instead, it’s a learning game that was developed in collaboration with the Rochester Institute of Technology. Called Just Press Play, the game helps students earn a digital reward for the ultimate achievement: collegiate success. Just Press Play encourages students to venture out of their comfort zone and get involved in all aspects of school—including (gasp) interactions with school faculty and staff.

    So there they are: 2011’s most-read Microsoft Research Connections blogs. Why Robots Invade Upstate New York didn’t make the list is beyond us. Go figure. Happy New Year from your friends at Microsoft Research Connections!

    —Lisa Clawson, Senior Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Layerscape for Earth-Science Storytelling

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    Layerscape: Enabling Earth scientists to explore planet EarthEvery so often, a new platform comes along that really shakes things up. Well, if you’re part of the earth-sciences community, prepare to be shaken, because Microsoft Research has just released a new way to convey earth-science concepts. It’s called Layerscape, and I like to think of it as a storytelling medium, since transmitting scientific ideas, especially those involving complex datasets, comes down to creating narratives. I work on earth-science storytelling at Microsoft Research Connections, and I’d like to walk you through just a couple of the many features of Layerscape.

    First, let me explain that Layerscape is a data visualization engine that was originally developed as WorldWide Telescope (WWT), an astronomical observatory housed within your PC. WWT was and is a wonderful tool for exploring the heavens, but right from the start is was more than just a powerful telescope on your PC. It is also a treasure trove of information drawn from cumulative scholarly publications and databases, including SIMBAD (the Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data), which gives you a list of objects visible in any particular corner of the night sky.

    And if you think the sky’s the limit, then think again, because soon after it was developed, WWT had expanded beyond astronomy, adding, among other things, a careful construction of the Earth, textured with fine-scale imagery courtesy of Bing Maps. Now earth science has become the central theme in the next phase of WWT’s life, with Layerscape as the digital ecosystem for creating and sharing three-dimensional visual stories based on earth-science data.

    The first feature of Layerscape I want to describe is communities. At the Layerscape website, under the “Browse by” drop-down, you will find content categories (Life Science, Climate, and so forth) that organize existing content. The communities feature, by contrast, lets you build structure around your own content. You can create a community around any idea you like and add whatever content you wish. What’s more, you can create WWT tours, which are special narratives built around data.

    Once your community exists, you can selectively invite participants to join, or you can throw it open to the public. Let’s suppose you’ve gone the public route, and I decide to subscribe to your community. Now I can see what’s in your community and, in particular, I can load and view your tours directly on my computer. And since the tours’ underlying data is included, I can look beyond your narrative to explore the data for myself.

    Okay, so what can I do with your data? Lots. This brings me to the second of Layerscape’s many features, what I will call “separation of data from perspective.” This feature works on data that exists in three dimensions and has a temporal aspect, allowing you to animate the data to see it unfold over time (probably at an accelerated or decelerated pace)—while you fly around examining it from any perspective or viewing angle you like.

    Layerscape user interfaceFor example, I’m currently building a tour from data compiled by Gavin Hayes of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center. In particular, I’m exploring Gavin’s data on subduction slabs, those enormous, 500-kilometer-thick boundaries where tectonic plates shove one another around. That data is pretty interesting, especially when you use WTT’s time control to speed it up by a factor of 10,000. Doing so enables me to see the recorded earthquakes, which betray the subduction slabs’ structure, popping off like fireworks all around the slabs. Better yet, I can use Layerscape’s separate perspective control to watch the action from many different angles. I can look at the data glowing down in the depths below, or I can fly down inside the Earth and look back up at it. This lets me create stories around the data that hadn’t been told before—stories that can change how we explore and come to understand our increasingly complex data.

    I can’t wait to see stories you’ll create with Layerscape! Try out the Layerscape beta, create virtual tours, and participate in communities where you can share your content and provide feedback.

    Rob Fatland, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    • Layerscape Beta
    • Layerscape Project
    • Earth, Energy, and Environment at Microsoft Research Connections
    • WorldWide Telescope

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