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December, 2012

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, 2012

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Narwhal Helps Developers Visualize Data in WorldWide Telescope


    First to explain… no, there is no time. Let me sum up: you are a scientist with complex geospatial data visualization challenges. We at Microsoft Research have a solution for you and we’re enhancing this through the release of a software library called Narwhal. (We threw in some example applications as well.) The parent project is Layerscape and the geospatial stories are told by using the WorldWide Telescope visualization engine. The release of Narwhal is in line with our philosophy of “As long as we’re going to build some tools, let’s share them and save others having to re-invent.” Inconceivable! For more: read on!

    Suppose you have some data that you’d like to look at… and it is complicated data. What do I mean by complicated? Perhaps you have a model of an electrical impulse travelling through a maze of 7,000 neurons. Or you have recovered the dive trajectories for the 43 Weddell seals you tagged last summer, or you just derived the magnetic field interactions between Jupiter and Callisto, or the Jaguar supercomputer has finally finished your solution for the thermodynamic structure of the Earth. Let’s run through the two questions that occur to the data visualizer—you—at a time like this: What format should my data be in? And how do I look at it?

    WorldWide Telescope visualization of data on Puget Sound water flow
    WorldWide Telescope visualization of data on Puget Sound water flow

    Unfortunately, there is as yet no single answer to these two questions; and to be fair, you probably already know what format your data is in (be it MATLAB, Comma Separated Value, NetCDF-CF, Microsoft Excel, or whatever). But because your data is complicated, you find it difficult to render and examine on your laptop. Well, we built WorldWide Telescope (WWT) to take advantage of your PC graphics card and now you can look at 500,000 data points as they unfold in time; watch this tour to get the idea. The ability to see the data is just the beginning; we are painfully aware that even though you can see the data, there are lots of other tasks to perform before it is useful, and that is why we built both the Layerscape website (to support content sharing) and the WorldWide Telescope Add-in for Excel (to help you import your data into WWT). All of this you can learn about at Layerscape.

    So far, so good; but if you are really a technical programmer, you will see more potential here—more visualization power—than you can readily access by using Excel. In fact, you may want to be able to connect directly from your software—which helps make sense of your data—to WWT where that data will appear as pixels and lines and circles and polygons and moving sidewalks and drifting balloons and neural impulses and seal-dive trajectories and magnetic fields. Enter Narwhal: software that helps you organize your data and send it to WWT. Narwhal is in its first release, so it is not the ultimate solution, but it does take big jump in that direction. To see what sorts of things Narwhal can help you do, take a look at this video.

    To wrap this up: we are certain that visualization is a key to understanding data, and that humans—and specifically, researchers—are increasingly good at deluging ourselves with massive, complex, hard-to-understand datasets. At Microsoft Research we are both happy and fortunate to get to work on related tools: Layerscape, WorldWide Telescope, and the WWT Add-in for Excel… and now Narwhal. We hope that they find their way to the scientists and educators who need them—and we will continue to refine them, so watch this blog for updates. 

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Low-Energy GPS Sensing Looms Large


    Location sensing has become ubiquitous—it’s present every time you turn on your smartphone or engage your car’s navigation system. It’s also become critical to a variety of outdoors and remote research applications, such as wildlife tracking, participatory environmental sensing, and personal health and wellness monitoring.

    The Global Positioning System (GPS) is commonly used for tagging the location of data samples. But traditional GPS location fixing is a power hog; in fact, the typical smartphone battery will drain in about six hours if the phone’s GPS is constantly running, which is particularly problematic in remote locations. Moreover, a smartphone is fairly bulky—not exactly the kind of sensor you can, for example, attach to fruit bats to monitor their nocturnal flights.

    Cloud-offloaded GPS may provide researchers with an energy-efficient solution for location sensing.
    Cloud-offloaded GPS may provide researchers with an energy-efficient solution for
    location sensing.

    In a paper titled, “Energy Efficient GPS Sensing with Cloud Offloading” (PDF file, 6.13 MB), we propose a potential solution to this battery power and size dilemma. This paper describes cloud-offloaded GPS (CO-GPS), an innovative way to perform location sensing by using tiny embedded devices and the cloud to share the work of GPS signal acquisition and processing. By logging only a few milliseconds of raw GPS signals, the device can store enough information for resolving GPS-based location, and it consumes two to three orders of magnitude less energy than stand-alone or mobile phone GPS sensors. The signals are then sent to the cloud with sensor data to reconstruct the location and time that the samples are taken. In delay-tolerant, data acquisition applications—such as animal tracking, float sensor networks, participatory environmental sensing, and long-range time synchronization—CO-GPS is ideal for extending the battery life of mobile devices.

    The paper received the Best Paper Award at ACM SenSys 2012—the premier conference on networked embedded sensing systems and a top forum for the sensor network research community. Many attendees consider the work to be a breakthrough in pushing continuous location sensing to extremely low power devices that can be carried by humans, animals, or recreational equipment.

    We anticipate that CO-GPS will be a boon to citizen-science efforts, particularly those that rely on participatory sensing from embedded devices. For example, the CO-GPS approach is a key enabling technology in Microsoft Research Project CLEO, a participatory environmental sensing system that we are showcasing at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting this week.

    Jie Liu, Principal Researcher and Research Manager, Microsoft Research, Sensing and Energy Research Group

    Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    EPA Cooperative R&D: Technology for Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration


    “Despite its size, Puget Sound is ecologically delicate; and while its symptoms of trouble are not easily visible, they are undeniable and getting worse.”
    —The Puget Sound Partnership

    Tony Hey, vice president, Microsoft Research Connections, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator, EPA Region 10 sign the agreement.We at Microsoft Research Connections have begun work on a cooperative research and development (R&D) project with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that centers on the restoration of large aquatic ecosystems, particularly Puget Sound. On Friday, November 30, we got together and put our respective imprimaturs on the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), the formal agreement for this partnership. Now all that remains is to do the actual work! Here are some details about the project, which was created under the auspices of the Federal Technology Transfer Act, and why it is so exciting for us.

    As you may know, we have a history—under the leadership of Vice President Tony Hey—of collaborating with researchers outside of Microsoft. Often, we collaborate with academicians doing research in computer science or—in my case—using technology to cope with environmental and geoscience data. We’re also very interested in how science registers in the public domain. For example: land-use policy can benefit from scientific insight, and we think that if technology can help scientists do data-intensive research, it should also help us manage resources, find better ways to preserve habitat, and better share this information with farmers, tribes, municipalities, and the general public. Taking an active role in the stewardship of our shared environment is what the EPA is about, so we began talking with them about working together.

    Tony Hey, vice president, Microsoft Research Connections, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator, EPA Region 10, shake on the agreement.
    Tony Hey, vice president, Microsoft Research Connections, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator, EPA Region 10, shake on the agreement.

    It can be difficult to comprehend how big our environment is and yet how tiny its essential elements are. Viewing Puget Sound from 40,000 feet above, it is a vast, beautiful expanse of waterways, inlets, islands, and peninsulas that are crisscrossed with the indelible stamp of cities, roads, and ferry boats supporting the lives of a few million people. Drop your perspective to the shoreline of Fir Island (Washington), and you find green strands of eelgrass washed up on the beach; under a microscope, these strands explode into millions of nodules of chlorophyll, the stuff that converts sunlight into sugar and powers the entire food web all the way up through the salmon. My point is that we inhabit the land and we depend on the health of our natural environment: from the great waterways we use for shipping to the smallest microbes and molecules. As the Puget Sound Partnership has stated, we have work to do to restore and protect the ecological health of Puget Sound, but where to begin?

    The idea of this new cooperative R&D project with the EPA is to explore how available data and technology might be fused to help us better understand and meet the needs of the restoration community, including the kinds of cooperative relationships the community members want to build between the public, the land-holders, the decision makers at the county and city level, and so on. From this learning perspective, we are confident that we can imagine and build proof-of-concept solutions that would be openly available for further development and adoption. For example, we imagine (from preliminary work) applying PhotoSynth technology to the challenge of creating a more robust depiction of the shoreline. Human-built structures like sea walls are distributed throughout Puget Sound and can impact habitat, particularly for grazing fish that spawn in shallow water. More broadly, we see similar efforts at organizations like the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) that aim to assemble and disseminate data about sea conditions, tides, and weather to help commercial fishing operations become more efficient.

    What more can be done? The opportunities are boundless! What is really exciting is that our colleagues at EPA and in the broader Puget Sound community share a passion for this work; we feel very fortunate to be a part of it and are enthusiastic about the opportunity to contribute.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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