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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.

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    Young talent gathers at Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum

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    The past decade has witnessed an incredible boom in Chinese academic research—a boom fueled in large measure by talented young researchers. Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting the Joint PhD Program, in which Microsoft Research Asia collaborates with leading Chinese universities to discover and foster outstanding research talent. From 1998 to 2013, more than 150 Chinese students have participated in this program. 

     Some of the young researchers who gathered for the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum
    Some of the young researchers who gathered for the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum

    “How about hosting a forum to get all these young talents together and provide them an opportunity to inspire each other?” I felt quite excited when this idea came up during a Joint PhD Program committee meeting. After a month of preparation, the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum was held on December 12, 2013. It was a rousing success, bringing together not only the program’s PhD students but also more than 60 additional doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Beihang University, and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    This PhD forum provided a platform for direct communication among top doctoral students. As one participant observed, it gave the young researchers a unique opportunity “to exchange ideas with fellows who have similar research experiences, which is very helpful and distinctive.”

    In addition to this overall sense of camaraderie and mutual inspiration, the forum featured many impressive sessions. Yu Zheng, a lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia and a renowned expert on the burgeoning field of urban computing, gave an opening keynote that discussed how city problems could be addressed by using big data. This speech, from a researcher who was named one of world’s top innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review, was an inspirational event, and many students clearly viewed Dr. Zheng as a role model. Xiaohui Wang, a PhD student from Tsinghua University, told us with enthusiasm, “I was inspired by Yu Zheng’s talk. It was great to learn how top researchers at Microsoft Research Asia have advanced their research progress.”

    Zhen Cui, left, and Dong Chen discussed their work on face recognition during the oral session.
    Zhen Cui, left, and Dong Chen discussed their work on face recognition during the
    oral session.

    During the oral session, 12 PhD students shared their published research findings. Particularly notable was the dialogue between Dong Chen, a Microsoft Research Asia Joint-PhD student, and Zhen Cui, a PhD candidate from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They focused on face recognition, and both of their papers had been accepted by 2013 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition. “Dong’s work on face verification is amazing. I am very happy and honored to attend this forum with such excellent peers, and I’ve benefited greatly from my interactions here with Dong and other students,” said Zhen Cui.

    During the forum, 16 PhD students presented their work with posters and demos. Pictured here are the two students who were awarded the Best Poster Prize.
    During the forum, 16 PhD students presented their work with posters and demos. Pictured here are the two students who were awarded the Best Poster Prize.

    During the panel session, four participants engaged in a spirited talk on how to achieve a better PhD career. They made me think about my own professional life, so interesting and meaningful were their observations. Their discussion on relationships with mentors impressed me the most. “Mentors are quite different from each other. As a PhD student, it is quite important to know your mentor’s style first, and then by working together with him, you will grow and be independent in research work,” said Shiguang Shan, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    A capacity crowd listened raptly during the panel discussion, How to Achieve a Better PhD Career.
    A capacity crowd listened raptly during the panel discussion, How to Achieve a Better
    PhD Career.

    As I reflect on the academic achievements and innovative spirit of these young students, I feel extremely satisfied and honored to have organized this forum. Although it lasted only one day, I believe the forum will be meaningful in the development of these promising young researchers.

    With the rapid development of Chinese research activities, I am convinced that the full potential of young talent is yet to be discovered. I sincerely hope that next year, more students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China will join us, and that the graduates of the Joint PhD Program will continue to make significant contributions to research.

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections Asia

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    Functional Lens Promises to Improve the Quality of Life for Diabetics and Others

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    Functional Lens Promises to Improve the Quality of Life for Diabetics and Others

    Millions of people worldwide live with type 1 diabetes, a potentially devastating disease with no known cure. People who have type 1 diabetes do not produce insulin in their pancreas, so they must constantly monitor their blood sugar levels while balancing food intake against insulin intake. It’s a mentally taxing, painful process that must be repeated throughout the day.

    A collaboration between Associate Professor Babak Parviz at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft Senior Researcher Desney Tan is focused on developing a non-invasive, technological solution that promises to improve both the health and overall quality of life for people with diabetes: a contact lens that monitors blood glucose levels. The functional lens technology is representative of a trend in technology known as Natural User Interface (NUI).

    NUI technology has the potential to provide user benefits without being obvious to others or intrusive to the user. We believe it has tremendous potential in the healthcare industry, where technology is a necessary, but not always pleasant, part of a patient’s diagnosis or care. The functional contact lens is an excellent example of how NUI can change patient monitoring from “snapshots” of information to continuous health monitoring that could potentially improve the wearer’s overall health—especially for those with a chronic disease, such as diabetes.

    Today, people with type 1 diabetes use needles to draw blood from their fingers multiple times throughout the day—every day, including meal times—to check their blood glucose levels. By monitoring their glucose levels, they can more easily ensure that they maintain an acceptable glucose level, which is critical to optimal health and longevity for diabetes patients.

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    The Daily Impact of Diabetes

    Daily, repeated blood draws are a painful necessity for people with diabetes. This process has limitations because the monitoring is only periodic. Diabetics may experience glucose fluctuations that require correction—for example, by increasing insulin intake or eating a piece of candy to raise their blood sugar level—anytime of the day. Regular glucose monitoring, in addition to sensible dietary choices, are part of daily life for Kevin McFeely, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 30 years ago, and his two young children, who also have diabetes.

    “If I don’t check my blood sugar, or my children don’t check their blood sugar daily, there are some different things that could potentially happen,” he explained. “If my blood sugar gets too high, I have noticed that my vision begins to blur, I begin feeling nauseous, very, very tired, and just almost physically sick. And potentially, if I let that go, I could pass out from having high blood glucose.”

    Low blood sugar also presents a danger to people with diabetes. If glucose falls too low, a diabetic may begin to sweat, suffer an elevated heart rate, and potentially lose consciousness. So it is critical that diabetics monitor their blood glucose on a regular basis throughout the day. McFeely’s children, who are ages seven and ten, are responsible for managing their disease and monitoring themselves at school throughout the day.

    “I’m used to testing myself six to eight times per day. I’ve been doing it for 30 years,” McFeely says. “But boy, when I think about my children… I mean, you have a spring-loaded needle that’s coming into your finger, and it hurts them. I can see their faces [when they test], and I can see them cringe.”

    A New Approach to Monitoring Health

    As envisioned, the lens would be worn daily, just like regular contact lenses. But instead of, or in addition to, correcting vision, the lens would monitor the wearer’s glucose level through their tears. Much of the information that can be obtained through blood testing is also accessible on the surface of the eye. The functional lens is being designed to sample eye fluid, analyze it, and transmit the information to a reporting machine. A tiny radio transmitter embedded in the lens will handle the information transfer.

    Parviz’s team at UW has built a variety of contact lenses with small radios and antennas built in, enabling them to draw power as well as send and receive information through radio frequencies. Also, the UW team has been able to place a glucose sensor on the contact lens and demonstrate that it can detect glucose at levels that are found in the tear film. The goal is to unite these elements to develop a contact lens that constantly monitors the blood glucose level and records information that can be accessed later by the patient’s doctor.

    McFeely is hopeful that technology, like the functional contact lens, can improve the monitoring and care options available to his children. “Thinking about the functional contact lens for my children who are both type 1 diabetic—I think that would be incredible,” he said. “Given that my children are diagnosed at such a young age, it does have the potential to help them live a longer, healthier life.”

    Visualizing Future Applications

    Ideally, the lens will do more than just record information. The UW team envisions a way to automatically display important information—including abnormal glucose or insulin alerts—in the lens wearer’s view. It could alert the wearer when they should stop eating due to glucose levels, or remind them when it’s time to get a snack. This real-time feedback would empower the user to react quickly, avoiding health-threatening or uncomfortable episodes. The visual information would be dormant the rest of the time, adhering to the NUI idea of being unobtrusive until needed.

    Once fully developed, the technology could be used to replace virtually any screening or diagnostics that currently depend upon blood draws. Additionally, the researchers who are involved in the project envision a future in which contact lenses deliver medicine directly into the bloodstream through the cornea.

    Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interface, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Presenting the History of Everything

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    ChronoZoom: an infinite canvas in time

    Today, March 14—Einstein’s birthday no less—marks the release of the beta version of an incredible new tool for the study of history: ChronoZoom. This powerful open-source tool, a joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, will be unveiled at the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) Conference and is available for download.

    What, you might ask, is so wonderful about ChronoZoom? After all, history resources abound. There are thousands of digital repositories, collections, libraries, and websites full of images, videos, documents, facts, and figures—not to mention the wealth of content squirreled away in private offices, personal computers, and university servers. But the sheer volume and disparate locations of these resources confound researchers, educators, and students, who spend untold hours searching this information, seeking to better understand history and its lessons for our future. What if we had a tool that could bring all these resources together?

    Moreover, despite increasing collaboration, the sciences and humanities are still largely taught and researched in silos. For example, when I took an East Asian Studies course in college, I learned what was happening in China in the 1400s, but not what was going on in the Middle East or Africa or Latin America, or what was taking place in the scientific realms of physics and chemistry. If we brought these worlds together, would we ask different questions? Would we arrive at new understandings of the past, resulting in different innovations and insights today?

    Such are the questions we hope to answer with ChronoZoom, which makes time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources, including videos, text, charts, schematics, images, articles, and other multimedia content. ChronoZoom thus serves as a "master timeline," tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and it aspires to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. In the spirit of “make no small plans,” ChronoZoom seeks to unify all knowledge of the past and to make this information easy to understand.

    In so doing, ChronoZoom emerges as a potentially vital tool in the evolving field of Big History, which attempts to unify the past—all of the past, from the beginning of time, some 13.7 billion years ago, to the present—through the four major regimes: cosmic history, Earth history, life history, and human history. Big History offers a broad understanding of how the past has unfolded, and it lets us explore the unifying characteristics that can bridge the intellectual chasm between the humanities and the sciences.

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    Today’s release of ChronoZoom is especially exciting for me because this tool was made by the academic community for the academic community. There’s no other timeline tool today that is supported by such a vast number of experts in different disciplines around the world. ChronoZoom has two communities that are led by two outstanding universities:

    • The content community, which provided the digital content to populate and share on ChronoZoom, led by Professor Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow at the University of California, Berkeley
    • The development community, which built the feature set to bring ChronoZoom to life, led by Dr. Sergey Berezin at Moscow State University.

    In addition, significant student involvement sets ChronoZoom apart. On the dev side, more than 80 percent of ChronoZoom is the work of undergraduate and graduate computer science students at Moscow State. The amazing application you can explore today was developed in three months by these students with support from Microsoft Research engineers. Similarly, 90 percent of the content in ChronoZoom was organized and developed by students at Cal Berkeley. 

    Today’s release is a call to action to the academic community to try ChronoZoom in their classrooms and then vote on its features and let us know what could make the tool even more useful. For academic experts and digital collection owners, it’s an opportunity to help determine the content that should be in ChronoZoom. For computer science institutions and developers around the world, it’s a call to join our open-source community and help us build the next set of features.

    ChronoZoom has a long history and has gone through different phases of development. In the spring of 2009, Roland Saekow had the good fortune of taking Professor Alvarez's Big History course. During the course, Professor Alvarez used a variety of tools, from log scales to multi-sheet paper timelines, to convey the vast time scales of Big History.

    Luckily, Saekow remembered a TED talk about a new computer zoom technology called Seadragon. He approached Professor Alvarez after class, and they started brainstorming about how a zoomable timeline would function. With the help of the Industry Alliances group on campus, they got in touch with Microsoft Research and Microsoft Live Labs, which helped produce the first prototype version of ChronoZoom.

    Today, with feedback from other Big History, humanities, and science professors around the world, we are focused on creating an all-new ChronoZoom that is a great educational tool for the classroom and research tool for academics. After creating the first version of ChronoZoom, we worked in collaboration with universities, professors, and students to make this tool easier to use in the classroom, but we definitely encourage feedback. This is why we are making the ChronoZoom beta version available to the community—hoping for significant feedback and collaboration to create a great tool that helps students, educators, and researchers really understand the history of everything.

    We’re pleased to announce that the ChronoZoom project is now part of the Outercurve Foundation’s Research Accelerators Gallery. The Outercurve Foundation, a non-profit, open-source foundation, provides software IP management and project development governance to 22 open-source projects. The foundation’s four galleries—the Research Accelerators, ASP.NET Open Source, Data, Languages and Systems Interoperability, and Innovators Galleries—support the collaborative development of software in open-source communities, yielding faster results and improved community development for organizations and research groups worldwide

    If you’re attending the NCCE Conference, I hope you’ll visit me today as I launch ChronoZoom beta in a training workshop for educators. And wherever you are, please try out the ChronoZoom beta in the weeks ahead, as we hope to get more than 500,000 users providing feedback over the next six months. If you want to help with content or development, please email us at chronozoomproject@outercurve.org.

    Zoom away!

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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