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.

On Helium and Chocolate

On Helium and Chocolate

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Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
thanks to our scientist collaborators.

To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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