Download Research Tools
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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