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Today, we have the second part of a two-part blog posted by program managers in Beijing and Redmond respectively—second up, Stewart Tansley:
When Microsoft Research shipped the first official Kinect for Windows software development kit (SDK) beta in June 2011, it was both an ending and a beginning for me. The thrilling accomplishment of rapidly and successfully designing and engineering the SDK was behind us, but now the development and supporting teams had returned to their normal research work, and I was left to consider how best to showcase the research potential of Kinect technology beyond gaming.
Since Kinect’s launch in November 2010, investigators from all quarters had been experimenting with the system in imaginative and diverse applications. There was very little chance of devising some stand-out new application that no one had thought of—since so many ideas were already in play. So I decided to find the best of the current projects and “double down” on them.
But rather than issuing a public global call—which we didn’t do, because so many people were proactively experimenting with Kinect technology—we turned to the Microsoft Research labs around the world and asked them to submit their best Kinect collaborations with the academic world, thus bringing together professors and our best researchers, as we normally do in Microsoft Research Connections.
We whittled twelve outstanding proposals to five finalists and picked the best three for additional funding and support. One of those three was the Kinect Sign Language Translator, a collaboration among Microsoft Research Asia, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Beijing Union University.
Incredibly, the Beijing-based team delivered a demonstration model in fewer than six months, and I first saw it run in October 2012, in Tianjin. Only hours earlier, I had watched a seminal on-stage demo of simultaneous speech translation, during which Microsoft Research’s then leader, Rick Rashid, spoke English into a machine learning system that produced a pitch-perfect Chinese translation—all in real time, on stage before 2,000 Chinese students. It was a "Star Trek" moment. We are living in the future!
Equally inspiring though, and far away from the crowds, I watched the diminutive and delightful Dandan Yin gesture to the Kinect device connected to the early sign language translator prototype—and words appeared on the screen! I saw magic that day, and not just on stage.
Nine months later, in July 2013, we were excited to host Dandan at the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond—her first trip outside China. We were thrilled with the response by people both attending and watching the Summit. The sign language translator and Dandan made the front page of the Seattle Times and were widely covered by Internet news sites.
We knew we had to make a full video of the system to share it with others and take the work further. Over a couple of sweltering days in late July (yes, Seattle does get hot sunny days!), we showed the system to Microsoft employees. It continued to capture the imagination, including that of Microsoft employees who are deaf.
We got the chance to demonstrate the system at the Microsoft annual company meeting in September 2013—center stage, with 18,000 in-person attendees and more than 60,000 watching online worldwide. This allowed us to bring Dandan and the Chinese research team back to Seattle, and it gave us the opportunity to complete our video.
That week, we all went back into the studio, and through a long hard day, shot the remaining pieces of the story, explaining how the system could one day transform the lives of millions of people who are deaf or hard or hearing—and all of us—around the world.
I hope you enjoy the video and are inspired by it as much we are.
We look forward to making this technology a reality for all! We would love to hear your comments.
—Stewart Tansley, Director, Microsoft Research Connections
I’m a middle-aged, white male who works in the tech industry; lucky for me, I get to “swim with the current.” I work in a culture that has been optimized for me. Many others in the field of computing aren’t so fortunate; they find themselves in a work environment that is indifferent to them (if not downright hostile), placing barriers in the way of their career advancement. It should be no surprise that most of the people in the tech industry are just like me, since we—often unintentionally—tend to hire and promote people who are most like us. Here’s the thing though: the resulting monoculture is bad for the industry and the individual companies that participate in it. It’s bad for our customers, for the field of computing, and bad for those who would like to have a successful career in technology but find the deck stacked against them.
As the general manager of Microsoft Research, I work daily with my colleagues to advance the state of the art in research. What this really means is that we work to drive innovation, and I’m well aware that statistics show that the presence of women increases technical teams’ collective intelligence. And I’m pleased to note that fostering a diverse workplace is an important commitment at Microsoft, a commitment we back up with scholarships and internships for young women who are interested in computing careers. But corporate commitment alone isn’t enough. There has to be personal recognition of the need for change—and the problem with swimming with the current is that you are often not aware that the current is carrying you along—or that it even exists in the first place. That can make it hard to appreciate the struggles of those who are forced to swim against it. On one level, I get it—I know that the game is rigged in my favor, and that it’s wrong, and I sincerely want to make it right. On the other hand, I need help in understanding what needs to change to make it right. This week I’m in Minneapolis, attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual gathering of women at all stages in their careers in the field of computing, along with the leadership of the field (both women and men). In fact, I’m just one member of Microsoft’s 260-strong contingent, which includes senior executives Julie Larson-Green, Jacky Wright, Rick Rashid, and Jennifer Chayes.
For me, the Grace Hopper Celebration is an opportunity to have a discussion about how we can ensure that women in our field get to participate fully, advance their careers, and work in an environment that respects them as individuals as well as for their unique and important contributions. It’s a chance for me to voice support, both on my own and Microsoft’s behalf, for initiatives that advance these goals. But it’s also a chance for me to learn about my own blind spots and increase my awareness of things that I can be doing to help women reach for their dreams. It’s important to me to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
I also have another important opportunity and role this year at Grace Hopper: proud father. My twin daughters recently graduated from college and are both now working in the field of computing. I’m thrilled that they are attending the Grace Hopper conference this year. It’s a privilege for me to watch and support them as they launch their own careers and begin to build their own network of colleagues through events such as this one, and it gives me one more reason to “fight the good fight” to make things better for women in our field.
—Kevin Schofield, General Manager, Microsoft Research
I'm in Beijing for the tenth annual Microsoft eScience Workshop, which runs from October 22 to 25. As in the past, the workshop takes place at the same time and in the same location as the IEEE International Conference on eScience. No coincidence, of course—why not take advantage of all that collected eScience brain power?
This year’s workshop is future-looking. With as many as 100 college students in attendance, the workshop will feature special introductory sessions led by top researchers, giving the students the opportunity to learn about the latest results and challenges in broad areas of scientific investigation. Among the topics the workshop will cover are environmental studies, bioinformatics, climate change, and new results in data modeling. I am particularly excited to see that the burgeoning field of urban computing is on the agenda of this year’s program.
The workshop is future-looking in another way. Cloud capabilities have matured to the extent that they offer, in some instances, the most effective way for scientists to scale out their computations and collaborate on data and discovery. To better understand these in the context of Microsoft’s cloud, Windows Azure, we have been collecting cloud-based tools to support scientific research and are now prepared to share what we have learned. Following the Microsoft eScience Workshop, we will hold a Windows Azure for Research training class—the first in China—on October 25 and 26.
This two-day course, presented by specially trained Windows Azure experts, is designed to help researchers learn the skills they need to apply cloud computing in their current and future investigations. Attendees will be able to access Windows Azure on their own laptop during this hands-on training, regardless of what operating system that laptop is running, because Windows Azure will be accessed through the Internet browser.
The class is part of the broader Windows Azure for Research Initiative, which is a program designed to help the research community leverage cloud computing to handle the challenges of data-intensive science. As my colleague Dennis Gannon, director of cloud research strategy at Microsoft Research Connections, said just last month:
Science is at an inflection point where the challenges of dealing with massive amounts of data and the growing requirements of distributed multidisciplinary collaborations make moving to the Windows Azure cloud extremely attractive. This is true for the individual researcher who does not want to manage local physical infrastructure and for large teams that need to share their discovery resources and services with the larger research community.
You can find details about the Windows Azure for Research initiative in Dennis’s blog. As Dennis explains, in addition to the training classes, the initiative includes the Windows Azure for Research Awards Program, which offers sizable grants of Windows Azure resources for individual projects or for community efforts to host scientific data and services. We will be accepting proposals continuously and making awards six times a year. By the way, lest there be any confusion, the Awards Program is open globally, not just in China.
I’m convinced that cloud computing can help resolve the computational and data challenges of today’s research, and I invite you to experiment with “cloud power” at Windows Azure for Research.
—Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections