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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

    From Smartphone to Smart Home: Automating the Modern Home

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    For baby boomers who grew up watching The Jetsons, the idea of the fully automated home was the futuristic stuff of cartoons. Today, the technology is available to make a Jetsonesque home a reality, by using inexpensive network devices that remotely control locks, lights, thermostats, cameras, and motion sensors. In theory, we should be able to monitor our home security cameras remotely from a smartphone or customize the climate of each room based on occupancy patterns. In practice, however, the high overhead of managing and extending home automation technology has restricted such “smart home” scenarios to expert hobbyists, who enjoy grappling with the technical challenges, and the wealthy, who can hire someone to handle the tech chores.

    HomeMaestro: a platform that helps end users program their home appliances

    To simplify the management and development of smart-home applications, Microsoft Research has developed HomeOS. When coupled with smartphones and cloud services (by using Project Hawaii and Windows Azure), HomeOS makes the smart home a reality for the rest of us. Unlike past home technology models, which rely either on an “appliance abstraction,” in which a closed, monolithic system supports a fixed set of tasks over a fixed set of devices, or a “network of devices abstraction,” in which a decentralized collection of devices relies on interoperability protocols, our HomeOS provides users and developers with a PC-like abstraction. It presents network devices as peripherals, enables cross-device tasks via applications, and gives users a management interface that is designed for the home environment. By so doing, the HomeOS overcomes the extensibility limitations of the appliance model and the manageability hassles of the network of devices model. At the same time, it brings the “app store” to the home environment, allowing users to extend the functionality of their home by downloading applications.

    To date, the HomeOS research prototype has been running in more than a dozen homes. We’ve also made it freely available to academic institutions for teaching and research purposes. Nearly 50 students, across several institutions, have already built some exciting applications for HomeOS. 

    For example, HomeMaestro from the MIT Media Lab shows the power of the HomeOS approach. HomeMaestro is a platform for intuitively defining home appliance behavior. The key concept in HomeMaestro is a repository of rules defined by other users, which can be mashed into interesting scenarios. These rules could be simple if-then statements, such as “if my bedroom window is open, then switch off the heater.” The rules can be defined on Windows Phone 7 and uploaded to the cloud (Project Hawaii web services and Windows Azure) for later use and sharing.

    In another example, students at the University of Washington recently used HomeOS with Windows Phone 7 and cloud services (from Project Hawaii) to create a door-monitoring system and networked alarm, and to control various home devices using the Kinect sensor.

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    Student demos of HomeOS applications

    You can check out some potential applications of the HomeOS in these student demos. A paper describing HomeOS will be presented at the 9th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI '12), which runs from April 25 to 27, 2012, in San Jose, California.

    With HomeOS, we feel we’re on the way toward that Jetson home—now, if only we could make George Jetson’s nine-hour workweek a reality!

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    ChronoZoom Arrives in Asia

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    With spring in the air, I am excited to be heading to Seoul, South Korea, to attend the Second Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians, which runs from April 27 to 29, 2012. There, I will have the honor of overseeing the Asian launch of ChronoZoom—the open-source community project dedicated to visualizing the history of everything. This is a perfect venue for our Asian launch, since the conference’s featured themes, Global Exchange Networks of Asia and Alternative Modernities in Asia, will offer content that should come alive in ChronoZoom. 

    Rane Johnson demos ChronoZoom betaRane Johnson demos ChronoZoom beta

    As you may recall, the ChronoZoom beta version was released this March. A joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, ChronoZoom provides resources that advance the study of Big History—the ambitious attempt to achieve a unified, interdisciplinary understanding of the history of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity. By using Big History as the storyline, ChronoZoom seeks to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences and to enable a nearly inexhaustible repository of readily understandable and easily navigable information.

    I am especially looking forward to our session on “The Evolution of Big History,” which will be chaired by the father of Big History, David Christian of Macquarie University (check out his TED talk on Big History). Other participants will include Big History leaders, Craig Benjamin of Grand Valley State University, Cynthia Brown of Dominican University, Yue Sun of Capital Normal University, and Seohyung Kim of Ewha Womans University, as well as me, on behalf of the ChronoZoom team. This session should serve as a springboard for engaging the community of world historians in building out Asian histories in ChronoZoom.

    As the lead for Microsoft Research’s efforts to grow the participation of women in computing, I am also thrilled that the conference is being hosted by Ewha Womans University’s Institute of World and Global History. Founded by a female American missionary in 1886, Ewha is the largest women’s university in the world, with some 23,000 students, 900 faculty members, and 180,000 alumnae as of 2010. The Ewha Campus Complex, the site of the conference, is a breathtaking architectural work that earned the Seoul Metropolitan City Award in 2008.

    While at Ewha, I intend to meet with professors and students in the humanities and computer science, inviting them to be part of ChronoZoom’s transformation of how the humanities and sciences work together. I’m sure they can help us grow both the content and tool capabilities in the next phase of this amazing open-source community project, much as our academic collaborators at the University of California at Berkeley and Moscow State University did.

    I am looking forward to getting back to you later this month to share how my trip went and tell you about new ChronoZoom collaborations with top research partners in Asia.

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

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    Open Data for Open Science—an Eye-Opening Event

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    Punctuating the gray skies and rain that typify spring in the Pacific Northwest, the first week of April brought a sunny gathering of data scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to Microsoft’s Redmond campus, where the second annual Open Data for Open Science workshop, or ODOS2012, took place. With overwhelming support from Microsoft product groups, Microsoft Research labs, and the Microsoft Research Connections team, the workshop featured a compelling agenda that attracted a full house of eager and excited attendees. The results greatly exceeded our expectations!

    Some of the ODOS2012 attendees—eager and excited about the event
    Some of the ODOS2012 attendeeseager and excited about the event

    ODOS2012 brought together two distinguished groups: (1) Microsoft researchers and engineers who are working on cutting-edge computing technologies, and (2) leading academic and government scientists who are conducting environmental research using big data. The latter group comprised about 40 attendees, including international participants from Australia, Brazil, China, and Canada.

    The agenda covered 26 topics on various Microsoft products, Microsoft Research technologies, and Microsoft Research collaborations with academia and governments worldwide. The technologies presented are components of Microsoft Environmental Informatics Frameworks (EIF), which is a strategy designed to use state-of-the-art computing technologies from Microsoft in solving the computational challenges of today’s big-data sciences.

    Some of the demos were developed by applying Microsoft technology on data and scenarios provided by the research collaborators, and some were spontaneous showcases presented by the external attendees. The workshop not only demonstrated visually powerful technologies, including WorldWide Telescope, ChronoZoom, and PivotViewer, but also helped push computational practices to the next level by engaging the user community with core computing technologies such as OData and Windows Azure.

    The presentation, New Tools for Environmental Science by Lucas Joppa, a collective contribution from Microsoft Research Cambridge (UK) to the ODOS2012 agenda, is worth noting in particular for couple of reasons: 1) the presentation generated an enlightening awareness of the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science initiative among the audience. 2) Lucas delivered his entire presentation in Cambridge via Skype and had seamlessly effective Q&A interaction with the audience. With such a successful online interactive presentation experience, we plan to enrich our future ODOS event agenda by including more remote presentations.

    The attendees’ enthusiasm was obvious, with many of them telling me, “This is eye opening!” and others writing glowing evaluations of the event. John Willson, an environmental informatics researcher from Canada, called it “…the best information payload on CS & the environment I have received in a decade…well organized, well presented, heavy content, simulating attendees…just a great workshop with lots of relevant ideas.”

    We are already looking forward to next year’s Open Data for Open Science workshop, and we encourage all environmental researchers to use EIF and share your experiences with us. Next year, you could be presenting at ODOS as we continue to explore the use of technology in tackling the big-data problems of environmental science.

    Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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