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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

    TouchDevelop a Hit with Students


    If you visit the University of Washington (UW), you’ll likely see students glued to their smartphones. That’s not surprising—smartphones seem to be everywhere now, and for students, these “computers in your pocket” have become constant digital companions. But on May 4–5, some UW students were more attached than ever to their phones, as they spent 24 hours participating in the first “TouchDevelop@UW Hackathon,” trying their hand at programming directly on their smartphone.

    University of Washington students used TouchDevelop to program smartphone apps at the first “TouchDevelop@UW Hackathon.”

    The UW students were using TouchDevelop, a novel application development environment from Microsoft Research that enables users to code right on their smartphones, with no need for a separate PC. TouchDevelop thus brings the excitement of the first programmable personal computers to the now ubiquitous mobile devices.

    With TouchDevelop, users can create Windows Phone applications that use the data and media that are stored on their phone, as well as the phone’s camera, GPS, and other sensors. And since smartphones are always connected to a network, TouchDevelop utilizes cloud services for storage and computing. What’s more, TouchDevelop applications can take advantage of social networks, allowing for the creation of programs that connect with the user’s online friends.

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    TouchDevelop Hackathon video

    The enterprising students came up with some truly creative apps. For example, one student produced Inspekt, a facial-recognition application that helps visually impaired people identify others. By using Inspekt on his or her Windows Phone, a visually impaired person trains the device to recognize friends and co-workers. The user then takes the phone to meetings or social events and points it toward people and the phone recognizes known individuals and audibly communicates their names.

    Color Recognition was another “visual assistance” app that came out of the UW hackathon. This program is intended to help people who are color blind recognize the color of objects. The user merely points the phone and taps the screen, and the phone replies with the color of the objects in its view.

    Other UW students created games for the phone, including TapTrisQ, a puzzle game, and DongleBlaff, a board game. All in all, the event was an exciting opportunity for Microsoft Research to tap into the ingenuity of today’s computer science students—and for the students to discover the power of touch-screen coding on the smartphone.

    Want to try your hand at scripting on the Windows Phone? Visit the TouchDevelop website for information and tutorials.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Get a Jump on Space Day


    The Museum of FlightLooking for a fun, educational, and inexpensive way to observe Space Day? The Museum of Flight in Seattle is throwing an early-bird celebration the evening before, and the Microsoft WorldWide Telescope team will be celebrating with them. On Thursday, May 3, the museum is offering free admission from 5:00 to 9:00 P.M. The Space Day celebration will feature talks, booths, and exhibits, all centered on the theme of space and astronomy.

    Volunteers from the Microsoft Research Connections team will be there, sharing the joys of exploring astronomy and space with the amazing WorldWide Telescope. They’ll show museum visitors how to navigate the universe with Microsoft Kinect for Windows, which allows you to use your body as the controller. Imagine flying through the universe by using just hand gestures and your voice. Local astronomy clubs will also have booths, demonstrating telescopes and encouraging future astronomers to pursue careers in space exploration.

    We hope you can come and join the festivities. But even if you can't attend, you can visit the WorldWide Telescope website, where you can explore the universe on your own. Happy Space Day!

    Jonathan Fay, Principal Software Architect, Microsoft WorldWide Telescope

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    From Smartphone to Smart Home: Automating the Modern Home


    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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