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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

    Lab of Things enables research and teaching


    Lab of ThingsSince its introduction in 2013, the Lab of Things (LoT) has captured the imagination of researchers, who are using this flexible, platform for experimental research that uses connected devices. During the past six months, we’ve updated and added features to the LoT. We’ve also seen LoT adopted in the classroom and used for some interesting research projects. We would like to share a few of these projects with you, and hope that they will inspire you to try using the Lab of Things for your own research.

    Bringing auditory messages to people who are deaf or hard of hearing

    The oven timer beeps, the doorbell rings, the smoke alarm blares: our homes are full of devices that deliver important messages via sound. But to people who cannot hear them, those acoustic messages remain undelivered. The Sound Choice team, whose members are students at the University of Washington, set out to solve this predicament. Using LoT, the student researchers integrated auditory data from a network of home sensors and processed the information in real time. The system then relayed the information to a wearable smartwatch that translated the message into tactile and visual output.

    Monitoring elderly community residents

    Many older people prefer to “age in place,” remaining in their own home as long as possible. But this poses serious problems for elderly folks living on their own. What happens if they fall or suffer a stroke? Who would know? While attending the University of Washington as a visiting scholar, Christian Bock, a student at Germany’s Heidelberg University, developed an experimental system for monitoring elderly people who live alone. His prototype (see the video below) uses three sensors—one in the kitchen, one on the refrigerator door, and one on the front door—to monitor the movements of the elderly resident. LoT links the devices together and stores the data in the Microsoft Azure cloud, where it is analyzed for signs of inactivity that could indicate an injury or illness. The data could be shared with family or community caregivers, who could then intervene in the event of an apparent medical problem.

    Learning about the Internet of Things

    Home sensors connected via LoT are just part of the much broader Internet of Things (IoT), that vast array of sensors in our houses, cars, stores, offices, and public spaces. It’s vital that researchers understand how to use the IoT as they design new systems. And what better place to start than by mastering the LoT? That was the conclusion of the faculty at Korea’s Kookmin University, whose Smart Embedded System Lab has been equipped with a comprehensive IoT curriculum based on the LoT platform. Students will use this curriculum to complete final projects across many different departments.

    Evaluating smart home apps

    At another Korean university, the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology, project lead Minsu Jo and his classmates are using LoT to understand the nature of people’s everyday activities in a home setting. To do so, they’re evaluating several smart home scenarios in their lab, which has been equipped with a variety of homelike sets and sensors, and they’re employing a home dashboard that lets users review and control the various apps. If you understand Korean, you’ll want to check out their video, which provides a high-level introduction to LoT and shows off some of their research.

    Using LoT for teaching

    As the foregoing examples show, people are using LoT as a teaching and research tool at universities around the world, and many of the student projects have been highly creative and potentially useful. See more LoT-based student projects and teaching materials, including university-level class curricula.

    Integrating with Microsoft Azure services

    Recently, we have added two samples to CodePlex that demonstrate how you can send LoT sensor data to the cloud via some powerful, but easy-to-use Azure services. The first sample shows how to use the Azure Mobile Services SDK to write data to a SQL Azure database from a LoT application. The second sample demonstrates how to integrate LoT with (1) Azure Event Hubs, which enables your app to process massive amounts of sensor data, and (2) Azure Stream Analytics, which lets you process complex event data in a low-latency, readily available, and highly scalable cloud environment.

    Now that you've learned about just a few of the creative and noteworthy ways that students and researchers are using the LoT platform, we hope that you’ll download the latest version and start deploying your research studies.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Dreaming big at SXSWedu


    I am totally psyched to be here in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu), a spinoff of the world-famous SXSW festivals of music, interactive, and film. I’m excited not only because it’s a chance to hear some great music and eat some unbelievable food. What really has me excited is the opportunity to promote computer science and information technology as a career option for young women.

    Big dreams for girls in computing

    SXSWedu will screen Big Dream, an inspiring film that tells the intimate stories of seven young women who are breaking barriers as they follow their passion in science, technology, engineering, and math—the acronymically named STEM fields. After the screening, I will be part of a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges for girls who want to pursue STEM studies and careers. My fellow panelists are Kelly Cox, the director of the film, and Meredith Walker, the executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an organization that encourages young people to “change the world by being yourself.” Moderating the panel is longtime STEM advocate Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin.

    SXSWedu fosters innovation in learning and brings together a community that’s passionate about changing education. What better place to deliver the message that computer science is creative, collaborative, impactful, and a great field for girls! I want to tap into the electrifying energy here and empower young women, showing them that they can help solve the world’s greatest problems by pursuing computing careers. I want them to understand that we need their talents in STEM.

    How badly do we need their talents? Well, according to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing occupations rank among the fastest growing and highest paying jobs in the United States. The Bureau estimates that the number of computing jobs will grow by about 18 percent from 2012 to 2022. However, they also project that many of these positions will go unfilled, due to an insufficient number of college graduates with computing-related degrees. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013.)

    As you may have heard me say previously, encouraging girls to take computer science courses is crucial to boosting the number of college graduates with computing-related degrees in the workforce. The need is critical. But don’t just take my word for it. Consider these facts:

    • Despite high school girls accounting for 56 percent of all students who take advanced placement exams, they make up only 20 percent of the students in AP computer science classes. (Source: AP Program Participation and Performance Data 2014. New York, NY: National Center for Women & Information Technology, 2014.)
    • At the college level, women receive just 18 percent of all computer science degrees, despite their earning 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. (Source: Women and Information Technology: By the Numbers. National Science Board, 2014.)
    • Women hold only 26 percent of computer and mathematics occupations, even though they make up 47 percent of the total workforce. (Sources: Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor; College Board, 2014; Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation, [NSB 14-01].)

    These statistics demonstrate that the talents of half our population are underutilized in computer science and information technology occupations. Furthermore, achieving gender balance in computer science increases the likelihood that computer software and hardware, and the myriad products and services they support, will be better aligned with the needs of all members of society. The addition of new talent and broader perspectives will have a positive impact on our economic growth and international competitiveness.

    We know that the personal stories in Big Dream can excite young women, their families, and friends about opportunities STEM. Already this year, there have been more than 30 screenings of the film, and every day more organizations are signing up to show it. Learn how you can host a screening.

    I want to acknowledge my colleagues on the Microsoft team—and our partners who are supporting our presence at SXSWedu. If you’re in Austin, check us out at the following sessions:

    In addition, I can’t wait to hang out and meet educators and students at our Microsoft Lounge in the Hilton.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research  

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    The human touch in computing


    The following is the last in a series of three blogs on the contributions of the Microsoft Research Asia Joint Lab Program (JLP), which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The JLP brings together the resources of Microsoft Research and major Chinese universities, facilitating collaboration on state-of-the-art research, academic exchange, and talent incubation. This blog focuses on the joint lab operated by Microsoft Research Asia and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)—officially, the China Ministry of Education–Microsoft Key Laboratory of Human-Centric Computation and Interface Technologies Laboratory, Chinese University of Hong Kong—which we’ve abbreviated as the CUHK-MSRA joint lab in this blog.

    Computing involves more than sitting at a keyboard writing code. Interactions with computer technology have become an integral part of many everyday activities, from driving a car, to learning new skills, to monitoring one’s health. These scenarios require technology with a human touch—computing that recognizes natural human gestures and voice commands and responds accordingly. Adding that human touch to computing is what distinguishes the CUHK-MSRA joint lab.

    The CUHK-MSRA joint lab started in 2005, and within just a year, it had earned designation as a “key lab,” the highest level of recognition conferred by China’s Ministry of Education (MoE). For 10 years now, CUHK faculty and students have been working with Microsoft Research Asia’s top researchers on vision, speech, multimedia, and other aspects of human-centric computing.

    Professor Helen Meng plays a critical role in directing research at the CUHK-MSRA joint lab.
    Professor Helen Meng plays a critical role in directing research at the
    CUHK-MSRA joint lab.

    Speech recognition and processing is a prime area of research at the CUHK-MSRA joint lab. Professor Helen Meng, the lab’s associate director of research, is currently working closely with Microsoft researcher Frank Soong on a project to develop speech signal processing and phonetic recognition technologies that can identify and analyze speech and voice problems. Once perfected, these technologies could assist speech clinicians in assessing and treating people with speech disorders. Their joint research team includes both CUHK doctoral students and Microsoft Research interns, which typifies the joint lab’s commitment to nurturing talented young computer scientists.

    This research has also helped Soong and fellow Microsoft researcher Yao Qian in modeling the accents of native Mandarin speakers who are learning English. By using cross-lingual text-to-speech (TTS) training, they have mapped the acoustic-phonetic differences between Mandarin and English, a feat that a popular YouTube video highlighted (over a million views!) showing real-time speech-to-speech translation from English to Mandarin in the speaker’s own voice. Now Soong and Professor Meng are co-supervising a doctoral student who is working on the next generation of cross-lingual TTS. Their joint paper will be presented this April at the 2015 IEEE ICASSP International Conference in Brisbane, Australia.

    This project is just one example of the collaborative nature of the CUHK-MSRA joint lab framework, notes Professor Meng. She points to other valuable outcomes, such as the recognition of CUHK students as Microsoft Fellows, the availability of Microsoft Research grants that allow the faculty to develop their own research ideas, and the opportunities for CUHK faculty and students to visit Microsoft Research Asia labs and be part of their research groups, all while exploring the latest technologies and research findings.

    Professor Meng at the Fifth Microsoft Research Asia Joint Laboratory Symposium in 2013, seated next to Hsiao-Wuen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia
    Professor Meng at the Fifth Microsoft Research Asia Joint Laboratory Symposium in 2013, seated next to Hsiao-Wuen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia

    Amidst all this support, Professor Meng asserts that freedom is what she and her CUHK colleagues most appreciated about their collaborative association with Microsoft Research Asia. “They never dictate how the project should be done,” she says, “so we really have the freedom, the space, to engage in blue-sky research. But at the same time, they’re always there to support us. This relationship is what has made our joint lab really successful.”

    Based on their solid achievements, we look forward to an even brighter future for the CUHK-MSRA joint lab

    —Tim Pan, Director of University Relations, Microsoft Research Asia

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