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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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    A Quilt, a Map, and a Few Good Apps

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    As I was preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., for the 2012 exhibition of the AIDS Quilt and the International AIDS Conference, it occurred to me that this journey began a little less than a year ago, in nearly the same spot. I first learned about the AIDS Quilt project from Brett Bobley, CIO of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH offices are just a short walk from the National Mall, where I am spending three days with a small group of volunteers unpacking, unfolding, arranging, displaying, refolding, and repacking the more than 6,000 blocks that comprise the AIDS Quilt. If it weren’t for Brett, I might never have made this journey, learned this story, and played a small part in raising awareness of a global pandemic.

    Digital likeness of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
    Zoomable digital likeness of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, running in Bing Maps

    I went to visit Brett last year to discuss the recently launched Digging into Data Challenge. Digging into Data is a program of grants to explore ways that technology can be used to illuminate the vast digital repositories that universities, libraries, and museums have established over the last few decades. Over lunch, I described to Brett the many technologies that Microsoft Research has developed to help people tell stories with data, including ChronoZoom, Rich Interactive Narratives, Large Art Display on the Surface, Silverlight PivotViewer, Layerscape, and Bing Maps. Brett, in turn, described many terrific NEH projects, but one in particular stuck in my head: a startup grant awarded to create an Interactive Tabletop Device for Humanities Exhibitions.

    For the next part of the story, we need to travel more than 2,500 miles to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Labs, where I met with researcher Anne Balsamo. It was she who won the grant for the tabletop, and it was her idea to partner with the NAMES Project Foundation to create digital interactive exhibits to support the AIDS Quilt exhibitions of 2012.

    Anne spoke of the challenges she faced. There are more than 55 GB of quilt images taken over a span of 25 years. Each image is a block of eight quilt panels sewn together. That amounts to more than 49,000 individual quilt panels, each with associated metadata. In order to make her exhibit come to life, Anne needed to stitch these images together as well as cut them up—in the cloud. Anne also needed a way to smoothly zoom and explore the immense tapestry of the virtually stitched quilt. The entire quilt measures approximately 1.3 million square feet—around 24 acres—and browsing across it is not a simple matter. Finally, Anne wondered if we could do more than create a single static quilt. Could we dynamically re-stitch the quilt into different configurations based on the metadata?

    As we talked, I realized that Microsoft Research had all of the technology pieces Anne needed—five of them, to be precise. To cut and stitch the virtual quilt, we could use Windows Azure to create cloud data stores and run stitch/unstitch scripts across multiple cores. To zoom and explore the quilt, we could use a combination of Silverlight Deep Zoom paired with both Large Art Display on Surface, for a high-fidelity experience, and Bing Maps, for a cross-platform experience. Finally, to dynamically reconfigure the quilt, we could use PivotViewer.

    But this is easier said than done. Anne had a very small budget and hiring a vendor to do just one of these tasks would probably consume all of it. How could we fund such a massive endeavor with only a few short months until the exhibition? The answer: we wouldn’t.

    Here at Microsoft, we have an initiative called the Garage, which brings together employees from all over the world who are interested in collaborating on side projects. I reached out to the Garage and asked if anyone would like to volunteer to help with the quilt project. Within hours, I had close to a dozen volunteers, including three developers who jumped right in and began the work of stitching the quilt and creating prototypes. Within a week, they had a proof of concept up and running in Bing Maps, enabling you to be one of the first people in the world to view the quilt in its entirety.

    Still we needed more help. We needed teams to create the interactive exhibitions that would illuminate the stories of those whose lives have been lost to AIDS. We called upon the University of Iowa and Brown University to help create these exhibits. We provided them with four Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense devices—large, interactive-touch tabletops that allow people to touch the virtual quilt, explore its story, and share its contents. These groups created the AIDS Quilt Touch application and the NAMES table, an interactive display that allows visitors to view the names memorialized in the quilt and physically explore the images as a single, stitched panorama.

    In late June, the AIDS Quilt was packed into trucks and shipped from the NAMES Project Foundation headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. The quilt was displayed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 27 to July 1 and again July 4 to July 8, where an estimated 1.5 million people viewed it. The quilt is again on display on the National Mall July 21 to 25, covering the entire mall once a day over three consecutive days. On the fourth day, we will display a single panel—a special panel called “the last one,” which will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure is found. On that day, we will ask the question: “When will we be able to say that the quilt is complete—that no one will ever die from this disease again?” I hope to see that day, and thanks to a distributed group of developers and researchers across the United States, we are able to bring the quilt to your desktop so that you can ponder that question and perhaps help find the answer.

    Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Adventures in Collaboration

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    Science@Microsoft: The Fourth Paradigm in Practice
    The Microsoft Faculty Summit celebrates the ongoing collaboration of Microsoft Research and the academic community, providing a forum for leading faculty members and Microsoft personnel to collectively discuss the future of computing and its applications in solving real-world problems. This productive partnership extends all the way back to the founding of Microsoft Research, so at this year’s summit, we are pleased to release Science@Microsoft, an e-book that commemorates our many years of fruitful teamwork

    Now, not to complain, but imagine the task that fell to me and my fellow editors—David Heckerman, Stephen Emmott, and especially Yan Xu and Kenji Takeda—reviewing years and years of research to select a handful of stories that encapsulate the irrepressible innovation, the remarkable collegiality, and the ground-breaking impact that have characterized the collaboration between Microsoft Research and leading academic researchers. It was almost as daunting as the original research. Well, not really, but it was challenging. Which stories would make the cut? What were the selection criteria? As David Heckerman observed, “Our challenge was to select a small number of stories that each represented a unique aspect of the new paradigm—the eigenstories, if you will.”

    In the end, we focused on the last 10 years, choosing stories that demonstrate the breadth of our collaborative research and the potential of computer science to address some of the world’s most vexing problems. We believe these stories demonstrate the amazing power of technology to impact areas far afield from traditional computer science.

    Within these pages, you will read about investigations into the genetic basis of human disease, the study of the heavens, and the design of three-dimensional objects. You’ll find accounts of basic research with practical outcomes: from protecting endangered wildlife to safeguarding consumers. You’ll see how Microsoft Researchers, working in concert with academic and government investigators, have tackled some of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century, from climate change to the AIDS epidemic to world hunger. You’ll also discover equally valuable, if less headline-worthy, contributions to the publication of chemical information and the reuse of data from clinical studies. Still, choosing was difficult. In the words of Stephen Emmott, “It was virtually impossible to select, given the first-rate science characterizing all of the projects.” Above all, this collection demonstrates Microsoft Research’s commitment to applying computer science to basic research and our rich history of working with external researchers. These stories commemorate a great record of using computing technologies in the service of humankind.

    Science@Microsoft is published under a Creative Commons license, and is available as a PDF at microsoft.com/scienceatmicrosoft. It is also offered as an e-book through the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online stores. So fire up your laptops or e-readers!

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Seventh Cambridge PhD Summer School: the Biggest and Busiest Yet

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    Participants from the seventh PhD Summer School in CambridgeAlmost 90 PhD students convened for the seventh PhD Summer School

    The first week of July was an exciting one for us here at Microsoft Research Cambridge, as we hosted the seventh PhD Summer School. Each year, we invite scholars in the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Programme, as well as students from partnering universities and institutions, to join us in Cambridge, England, for a week of immersive research, technical talks, transferrable skills talks, poster sessions, and socializing.

    This year’s event was attended by almost 90 students from across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Attendees came from as far afield as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and from 14 European countries. Our Russian guests included the five winners of the Microsoft Research Computer Vision Contest. We also welcomed nine students from the EU-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network TransForm, which partners with our Cambridge Systems and Networking group.

    Our school “curriculum” featured research talks covering the spectrum of work being done across our lab research groups. Topics included computational methods for planetary prediction, software verification, functional programming, datacenter performance, medical imaging, and crowdsourcing. Our technical talks covered Microsoft and Microsoft Research technologies including Kinect for Windows, .NET Gadgeteer, Microsoft Academic Search, F#, and cloud technologies.

    In addition to the technical discussions, we also spent some time focusing on personal development. This year’s talks included several Summer School classics such as “How to Write a Great Research Paper and Give a Great Talk” by Simon Peyton-Jones and “A Rough Guide to Being an Entrepreneur” by Jack Lang from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University. We also included some new talks in the mix, including discussions on “Strategic Thinking for Researchers” and “Intellectual Property at Microsoft.”

    PhD scholar Olle Fredriksson, from the University of Birmingham, explains his research to PhD student Janina Voigt, from the Cambridge Computer Lab. We weren’t the only presenters at this year’s Summer School. Our students displayed their research to dozens of Microsoft researchers during our three lunchtime poster sessions. 32 of our Microsoft PhD scholars, whose PhD studies are funded through Microsoft Research Connections, had the opportunity to meet with their Microsoft co-supervisors during this period as well.

    “[The students] really liked the poster session, especially the opportunity to get direct, one-to-one relevant feedback from Microsoft senior researchers,” said Jon Crowcroft, professor of Communications Systems in the Cambridge Computer Lab and PhD supervisor/advisor to some of the attending students.

    Summer intern Soorat Bhat presents his demo to PhD student Tatiana Novikova, from Moscow State University, during the DemoFest. Senior scientist Drew Purves presents in the background.Incentivized by the Alan Turing Centenary, we wanted to do something special this year, so we organized a networking event one afternoon. The afternoon began with a pair of keynote talks: “Can Computers Understand Their Own Programs?” by principal researcher and ACM Turing Award winner Sir Tony Hoare, and “The EDSAC Replica Project” by former Lab Director Andrew Herbert. The afternoon continued with a DemoFest, featuring Microsoft Research technologies and five winning projects from the Computer Vision Contest.

    We all enjoyed the week tremendously and wish the “class” of 2012 all the best. We already look forward to next year’s Summer School!

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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