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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.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Nurturing the future of computer science

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    Each year since 2005, Microsoft Research has awarded Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowships to promising, early-career academics who are engaged in innovative computing research and have the potential to make significant advances in the state of the art. These fellowships—which include a cash award and access to software, invitations to conferences, and engagements with Microsoft Research—allow bright young academics to devote their time to pushing the boundaries of computer science research, freed from the distraction of grinding out grant proposals.

    Rising stars of the future of computer science

    So it is with immense pleasure that we announce the 2014 Faculty Fellows: seven young professors from around the world who are exploring groundbreaking, high-impact research—the kind of research that has the potential to solve seemingly intractable societal problems. They now join the more than 50 talented academics who have received our past Faculty Fellowships.

    Here, then, are this year’s Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows and a brief description of their current research:

    • Vinod Vaikuntanathan, assistant professor of Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      Professor Vaikuntanathan’s main research interest is in the theory and practice of cryptography. He has played a prominent role in the development of lattice-based cryptography and leakage-resilient cryptography, and more recently has focused on the theory and practice of computing on encrypted data.
    • David Steurer, assistant professor of Computer Science, Cornell University
      Professor Steurer investigates the power and limitations of efficient algorithms for optimization problems that lie at the heart of computer science and its applications. A focus of his work has been the Unique Games Conjectures, whose resolution—no matter in which direction—promises new insights into the capabilities of efficient algorithms.
    • Roxana Geambasu, assistant professor of Computer Science, Columbia University
      Professor Geambasu works at the intersection of three computer science fields: distributed systems, operating systems, and security and privacy. Her research aims to improve privacy in today's data-driven world. Her goal is to forge a new world, in which web services are designed from the ground up with privacy in mind, and where users are more aware of the privacy implications of their online actions.
    • Yong-Yeol Ahn, assistant professor of Informatics and Computer Science, Indiana University Bloomington
      Professor Ahn’s research develops and uses mathematical and computational methods to study complex systems, such as cells, the brain, society, and culture. His recent contribution includes a new framework to identify pervasively overlapping modules in networks, network-based algorithms to predict viral memes, and a new computational approach to study food culture.
    • Percy Liang, assistant professor of Computer Science, Stanford University
      Professor Liang’s research interests include parsing natural language into semantic representations (for example, executable code) for supporting intelligent user interfaces, and developing machine learning algorithms that infer rich latent structures from limited supervision (such as program output), balancing computational and statistical tradeoffs.
    • Byung-Gon Chun, assistant professor of Computer Science, Seoul National University
      Professor Chun is interested in creating new platforms for operating and distributed systems. He is currently developing a big data platform that makes it easy to implement large-scale, fault-tolerant, heterogeneous data processing applications. He has also built systems that seamlessly integrate cloud computing with mobile devices for improved performance, reliability, and security.
    • Diego Fernández Slezak, assistant professor of Computer Science, School of Exact and Natural Sciences, University of Buenos Aires
      Professor Fernández Slezak’s work focuses on novel methods for text analysis in massive-scale repositories to find stereotyped patterns in human thought. The goal is the development of machine-learning techniques to study digital text corpora associated with cognitive processes, aiming at identifying the mental operations underlying behavioral processes, with application to mental health and education.

    For the tenth year of the program, we selected seven 2014 Faculty Fellows from the following five regions:

    • Latin America and the Caribbean
    • Europe, the Middle East, and Africa
    • The United States and Canada
    • Australia and New Zealand
    • Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore

    Microsoft Research is committed to creating opportunities for researchers around the world to make an impact, and we are delighted to provide these fellowships to recognize the work, and nurture the careers, of tomorrow’s academic research leaders.

    Jaime Puente, Director, Chair of Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship Program, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Kinect for Windows helps decode the role of hand gestures during conversations

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    We all know that human communication involves more than speaking—think of how much an angry glare or an acquiescent nod says. But apart from those obvious communications via body language, we also use our hands extensively while talking. While ubiquitous, our conversational hand gestures are often difficult to analyze; it’s hard to know whether and how these spontaneous, speech-accompanying hand movements shape communication processes and outcomes. Behavioral scientists want to understand the role of these nonverbal communication behaviors. So, too, do technology creators, who are eager to build tools that help people exchange and understand messages more smoothly.

    To decipher what our hands are doing when we talk to others, researchers need to obtain traces of hand movements during the conversation and be able to analyze the traces in a reliable yet cost-efficient way. Professor Hao-Chuan Wang and his team at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan realized that they could solve this problem by using a Kinect for Windows sensor to capture and record both the hand gestures and spoken words of a person-to-person conversation.

    This photo shows the actual laboratory setup, in which Kinect sensors were placed to accommodate face-to-face and video-mediated conditions.

     This photo shows the actual laboratory setup, in which Kinect sensors were placed to accommodate face-to-face and video-mediated conditions.

    “We thought to use Kinect because it’s one of the most popular and available motion sensors in the market. The popularity of Kinect can increase the potential impact of the proposed method,” Wang explains. “It will be easy for other researchers to apply our method or replicate our study. It's also possible to run large-scale behavioral studies in the field, as we can collect behavioral data of users remotely as long as they are Kinect users. Kinect's software development kit is also … easy to work with.”

    With the advantages of Kinect for Windows in mind, Wang collaborated with Microsoft Research Asia to use Kinect for Windows to capture hand movements during conversation. “I knew that Microsoft Research was conducting some advanced research with Kinect,” he notes, “so we were very interested in working with Microsoft researchers to deliver more good stuff to the research community and society.”

    During the resulting collaborative research, the team placed two Kinect sensors back-to-back between two conversational participants to document the session. The sensors captured the speech and hand movements of each of the interlocutors simultaneously, providing a time-stamped recording of the spoken words and hand traces of the interacting individuals.

      Schematic depicting the placement of the Kinect for Windows sensors during the experiments

    Schematic depicting the placement of the Kinect for Windows sensors during the experiments

    To demonstrate the utility of the approach, the researchers compared the amount and similarity of hand movements under three conditions: face-to-face conversation, video-mediated chat, and audio-mediated chat. The two participants could see each other during the face-to-face and video chat conversations, but they had no visibility of one another during the audio chat.

     The researchers encountered some unexpected results. “First, perhaps counter-intuitively, we found that people actually gesture as much in an audio chat as in face-to-face and video chat. This suggests that people gesture probably not for others but for themselves, as it's clear that people are still moving their hands even when their partners cannot see it,” Wang remarks.

    This chart shows that people "talked with their hands" at about the same rate during audio-only conversations, suggesting that hand gestures are more for the speaker's benefit than the listener's.

    This chart shows that people "talked with their hands" at about the same rate during audio-only conversations, suggesting that hand gestures are more for the speaker's benefit than the listener's.

    The investigators also looked at the relation between the conversation participants’ comprehension of the whole communication and the amount of gestures used. Surprisingly, they didn’t find a correlation between a participant’s level of understanding and the amount of gestures their conversation partner used. Instead, they found an association between a participant’s understanding of the conversation and that participant’s own gesturing, strengthening the possibility that hand movements are not necessarily “body language” for producing and conveying messages, but rather self-reinforcers or signifiers related to the consumption of messages.

    This graph shows the association between self-gestures and the level of understanding, suggesting that hand gestures actually function as self-reinforcers.This graph shows the association between self-gestures and the level of understanding, suggesting that hand gestures actually function as self-reinforcers.

    The potential applications of using Kinect sensors in this method are broad, covering theoretical and practical objectives. For example, it is possible to deploy studies in the field to examine the usability of particular communication tools (for example, whether Skype gets people to move their hands when they talk). In addition, researchers may be able to use the technique to accumulate experience-oriented design insights at a speed and scale unavailable previously.

    “It's easy to set up and program Kinect, so it greatly reduces the overhead of applying it to cross-disciplinary research, where the goal is to spend time on studying and solving the domain problems rather than technical troubleshooting,” Wang explains.

    A full paper about Wang’s collaboration project with Microsoft Research Asia was presented at CHI 2014, the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, which was held in Toronto, Canada, this April.

    “I really enjoyed working with Microsoft Research Asia. I received both great support and freedom to pursue the topics of interest to me. This makes the collaboration really unique and valuable,” Professor Wang says, “and I hope to closely collaborate with Microsoft researchers to scale up the current work. The proposed method has the potential to help us better understand communication behaviors in unconventional communication settings, such as cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communications, and in educational discourse, such as teacher-student interactions. Because language-based communication often doesn't go well in these situations, the non-verbal part may become more functional. Deeper understanding of the processes is likely to inform the design of technologies to better support these situations.”

    Winnie Cui, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Microsoft researcher adds industry wisdom to Stanford HCI course

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    On June 4, students, teaching staff, and guests gathered at Stanford University for the final presentations for CS247—Interaction Design Studio. While this core class in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) track is offered every year, this year it was taught by two industrial researchers—I was invited to teach the class along with Jofish Kaye from Yahoo! Labs. Combining the creativity and energy of Stanford students with the experience and practical wisdom of industry provided a unique opportunity for the class. The final projects focused on rich, everyday communication tools, an area fueled by the popularity of apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Vine. Students went through an intense design process that involved iteratively building prototypes and observing how users interacted with them. 

    Collage with Friends
    The Collage with Friends project designed by team JJD was presented at the Stanford University presentation showcase.

    The projects and creativity shown by the students never ceases to amaze me. Projects included tools that encouraged more creative communication spurred by recent social events or creative photo, video, or artistic collections; better communication with parents; and improving musical technique through a live critique session. The final presentation session was a frenzy of grading activity, providing demos for industry-celebrity judges, and networking with guests and visitors.

    Merrie Morris, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research judges Project Duzaro at the Stanford University Interaction Design Studio student showcase.
    A student listens as Merrie Morris, senior researcher at Microsoft Research judges Project Duzaro at the Stanford University Interaction Design Studio student showcase.

    By teaching this design-project class at Stanford, we were able to offer the students a real-world, hands-on experience and I found it particularly rewarding to pass on knowledge to the next generation of computer scientists—a rare opportunity for those of us in industry. This experience developed stronger relationships with the university as well as with students, who could one day become employees at Microsoft. In addition, it brought together industry team coaches and judges in the field of HCI, allowing us to take advantage of Microsoft Research’s strategic location in Silicon Valley to connect with the local research community. I hope to have more opportunities for this kind of teaching experience in the future.

    John Tang, Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research

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