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October, 2013

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.

October, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Kinect Sign Language Translator - part 1


    Today, we have the first part of a two-part blog posted by program managers in Beijing and Redmond respectively—first up, Guobin Wu:

    I consider myself incredibly lucky to be the program manager of the Kinect Sign Language Translator project. There are more than 20 million people in China who are hard of hearing, and an estimated 360 million such people around the world, so this project has immense potential to generate positive social impact worldwide.

    I clearly remember the extensive effort we put into writing the proposal. We knew that Prof. Xilin Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences had been researching sign language recognition technology for 10 years, and he was eager to try the Kinect technology, which offered a very favorable price-to-performance ratio. Ming Zhou, a principle researcher from Microsoft Research Asia, had a good working relationship with Prof. Chen, and it was on Ming’s strong recommendation that we submitted the sign language translator proposal in response to Stewart Tansley’s call for Kinect projects.

    Students from the special education school at Beijing Union University participated in the project.During the first six months, we focused mainly on Chinese sign language data collection and labeling. Prof. Chen’s team worked closely with Prof. Hanjing Li of the special education school at Beijing Union University. The first step was to recruit two or three of Prof. Li’s students who are deaf to be part of the project. One candidate in particular stood out: Dandan Yin. We were moved when, during the interview, she told us, “When I was a child, my dream was to create a machine to help people who can’t hear.”

    The next milestone was to build a sign language recognition system. The team has published many papers that explain the technical details, but what I want to stress here is the collaborative nature of the project. Every month, we had a team meeting to review the progress and plan our next steps. Experts from a host of disciplines—language modeling, translation, computer vision, speech recognition, 3D modeling, and special education—contributed to the system design.

    Our system is still a research prototype. It is progressing from recognizing isolated words signed by a specific person (translator mode) to understanding continuous communication from any competent signer (communication mode). Our current prototype can successfully produce good results for translator mode, and we are diligently working to overcome the technology hurdles so that the system can reliably understand and interpret in communication mode. And while we’re solving those challenges, we are also starting to build up the system’s vocabulary of American Sign Language gestures, which are different from those of Chinese Sign Language.

    An avatar on the computer screen (right) represents the hearing person and interprets their spoken language into sign language. We’ve had the good fortune to demo the system at both the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit and the Microsoft company meeting this year. Dandan attended both events and displayed her professionalism as a signer. After the Faculty Summit in July, she emotionally thanked Microsoft for turning her dream into reality. I was nearly moved to tears by our reception during the company meeting, the first one that I’d ever attended in person. And I was thrilled to hear thundering applause when Dandan communicated with a hearing employee by using our system.

    Since these demos, the project has received much attention from researchers and the deaf community, especially in the United States. We expect that more and more researchers from different disciplines and different countries will collaboratively build on the prototype, so that the Kinect Sign Language Translator system will ultimately benefit the global community of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The sign language project is a great example of selecting the right  technical project with the right innovative partners, and applying effort and perseverance over the years. It has been a wonderful, multidisciplinary, collaborative effort, and I’m honored and proud to be involved.

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Students develop analytics engine for the Lab of Things


    Lab of Things (LoT)The Lab of Things (LoT) may sound like something you’d find in a sci-fi movie, but it is a lot more practical than that: it’s a research platform that makes it easy to deploy interconnected devices in multiple homes, then share your individual research data with other investigators, turning it all into a large-scale study. The LoT thus enhances field studies in such diverse disciplines as healthcare, energy management, and home automation. It not only makes deployment and monitoring easier—it also simplifies the analysis of experimental data and promotes sharing of data, code, and study participants, further lowering the barrier to evaluating ideas in a diverse set of environments where people live, work, or play.

    One key to the success of the LoT is the involvement of the academic research community in developing extensions to the LoT infrastructure. These extensions can be in the form of drivers, applications, and cloud components such as analytics.

    Shortly after we released the LoT in July of this year, a group of students from University College London (UCL) started poking around the code and got inspired: they’ve developed an analytics engine to scrutinize data collected from experiments and research applications running on the LoT. And this is no slouch of an engine, either. Among other things, it:

    • Permits easy integration of different platforms beyond the LoT, including HomeOS and the Internet of Things, allowing them to easily send device data to the engine.
    • Provides analytics for data collected from various field studies and for a wide range of use-case scenarios.
    • Offers HTTP-based APIs, which makes it connect to an internal/external client—a Windows 8 application, for example.
    • Employs a simple interface, enabling users to easily query and analyze data.

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    The analytical models provided by the UCL Lab of Things Analytics Engine allow the user to evaluate usage patterns of devices, compare data sets, and find anomalies. The engine also has the capability to run custom R scripts, thereby enabling users to employ statistical models beyond those directly implemented in the engine.

    If you are interested in the LoT and running data analytics using the analytics engine, visit the Lab of Things site and the analytics engine CodePlex site

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Thinking big about women in computing


    Grace Hopper Conference 2013 - Celebration of women in computing.

    I can’t imagine a more perfect theme for the 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing than “Think Big, Drive Forward.” It’s a message that speaks to me personally, as a new employee of Microsoft who has been thinking big things about my own career and driving ideas forward through events like GHC, the world’s largest annual event for technical women. Early in 2012, I had the opportunity to attend the CRA-W Graduate Cohort Workshop, an event specifically for women pursuing graduate degrees in computer science. Much like GHC, the Grad Cohort is an incredibly inspiring event with great potential for networking. It was during the research poster session that I met Rane Johnson, a director at Microsoft Research Connections, who shares my passion for promoting diversity in computing. Rane and I bonded immediately over the work I was presenting: computer science outreach and mentoring in rural Haiti. Our shared interests turned into an amazing opportunity for me to be Rane’s intern that summer at Microsoft Research.Rane Johnson and Katie Doran

    After arriving at Microsoft in May 2012, I felt my previous big thinking was somewhat tiny. I had come to a place where everyone was passionate about technology and computing, and I was far from the only woman! Even before my intern orientation had ended, I knew that Microsoft was the place for me—I just wasn’t sure how to make it happen. Lucky for me, Rane’s passion for developing more female computer scientists made her the point person for organizing Microsoft’s presence at the 2012 GHC. As her intern, I played a key role in coordinating the logistics for our internal events, our booth schedule, and all communications to our attendees—from student scholarship recipients all the way to company executives.
    By the time I arrived in Baltimore, I was thinking really big and ready to drive my career forward! At every opportunity, I introduced myself to the other Microsoft attendees. As one of the individuals helping to organize things, I had a huge advantage in striking up conversations with all the amazing, talented women who volunteered in our booth. I was blown away by how supportive everyone was and how sincerely eager they were to help me take my career to the next level. By the end of the conference, I had snagged multiple informational interviews across the company, and my inbox was filled with job opportunities. It was through these incredible women, my new connections from GHC, that I found my current role as a program manager within Microsoft’s Operating Systems group.

    I’ve now been a full-time employee just shy of eight months, and returning to GHC feels like the start of a great new phase of my career: from student presenter at the Grad Cohort, to an eager intern last year, to a new employee helping to recruit more female innovators. I’m looking forward to assisting those attendees who are thinking big things about their own careers, and I know that the 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration is the perfect place for them to drive those dreams forward.

    —Katie Doran, Program Manager, Operating Systems, Microsoft

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