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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

    Top Students Descend on Microsoft Research Cambridge

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    With the academic year drawing to a close, Microsoft Research Cambridge was delighted to welcome more than 60 doctoral students for the sixth PhD Summer School at the end of June 2011. Participants came from as far afield as Israel and Russia, numerous European countries, and locales across the UK. It was also a pleasure to host students from Cambridge Computer Laboratory, just across the road.


    More than 60 PhD students converge on Microsoft Research Cambridge.

    More than 60 PhD students converge on Microsoft Research Cambridge. (Volodymyr Kuznetsov, Enuo He, Sadia Ahmed, Georgios Varisteas, Varun Bhaskar Kothamachu, Hannah Smith, Andrej Mikulik, Larissa Pschetz, David Kim, Su-Yang Yu, Michal Ficek, Gian Marco Palamara, Peter Wortmann, Nicolas Mobilia, Davide Cacchiarelli, Niek Bouman, Petra Korica-Pehserl, Timothy Rudge, Dmitri Kornev, Gjata Nerta, Christine Rizkallah, Mohamed Amir Yosef, Evgeny Rodionov, Yury Tumanov, Fidaa Abed, Milovan Duric, Ivan Ratkovic, Anastasia Tugaenko, Milan Stanic, Yaniv Ben-Itzhak, Faraz Makari Manshadi, Maximilian Dylla, Sergiy Byelozyorov, Alexander Chigorin, Syama Sundar Rangapuram, Sergey Milyaev, Roman Shapovalov, Evgeny Novikov, Vladimir Kononov, Gleb Krivovyaz, Sergey Shveykin, Pavel Shved, Silke Jansen, Stepan Kuznetsov, Dmitry Laptev, Moshe Gabel, Victor Chernyshov, Ariella Voloshin, Dmitry Ivankov, Jan Margeta, Jiaxin Han, Quan Guo, Madhura Killedar, Michelle Furlong, Edoardo Tescari, Zhen Bai, Lech Swirski, Andra Adams, Steven Marsh)

    This annual event provides an opportunity for some of the brightest graduate students to come together at the Microsoft Research Cambridge lab for a week of immersive technical talks, personal development sessions, and socialising. Representing 32 universities and institutes, the participants are working on a wide range of subjects, from how to program a million-core neural computer and parallel operating systems, to cloud computing and machine learning. Although most are computer science students, others are studying subjects as diverse as Amazonian road networks and cosmology.

    An extensive range of technical talks by Microsoft researchers provided insights into the whole spectrum of work at the Cambridge lab, including research on computer science as applied philosophy, parallel software, machine learning for Kinect, social computing, medical imaging, functional programming, computational ecology, and computing to cure cancer. Moshe Gabel, a participant from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, was impressed, noting that “the Summer School really opened my eyes to the amazing range of sub-fields in computer science”.


    Christine Rizkallah, from the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Institute in Germany, explains her research over lunch to lab researchers.

    Christine Rizkallah, from the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Institute in Germany, explains her research over lunch to lab researchers.

    The lawn marquee provided an opportunity for the students to showcase their research to the dozens of Microsoft researchers who swarmed around their posters, asking probing questions and giving advice over lunch. Seventeen of our new Microsoft PhD scholars, funded through Microsoft Research Connections, had the opportunity to meet with their Microsoft co-supervisors—just one way that our programme enables close collaboration between students and Microsoft.

    A key goal of the week was to facilitate personal development, with deep-dive sessions on such topics 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. These sessions had wide appeal; as Jiaxin Han from Durham University observed, “As a non-computer science student, I’ve also benefited a lot from general guidance on PhD study, as well as gaining a 3-D view of Microsoft”.

    The Summer School provides a fantastic opportunity for the next-generation of technology leaders to interact with the researchers at Microsoft Research Cambridge, and for Microsoft Research—and, more specifically, the Microsoft Research Connections group—to provide a window into what we do. Many of the students were impressed with the wide latitude given to Microsoft researchers. Seeing projects like Worldwide Telescope and Microsoft Academic Search made me realise that Microsoft gives its researchers some freedom in working on interesting projects that are not directly related to their mainstream products,” explained Christine Rizkallah, from the Max Planck Institute.

    For the lab, it is a source of inspiration and pride to be working with such talented young individuals, who are the future of science and computing. We’re already looking forward to next year’s PhD Summer School in Cambridge!

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA, and Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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    Debugger Canvas released on Devlabs

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    In June 2011, Microsoft released Debugger Canvas on DevLabs, the result of a year-long collaboration between Microsoft Research, the Microsoft Visual Studio product team, and Brown University. Debugger Canvas transforms how software developers use and experience their programming environments.

    In a traditional programming environment, a developer views code like most people view the web: by hopping from document to document, following link after link, with many documents opened in tabs across the top of the screen. Just like hyperactive web surfers, developers often get “lost in the tabs,” struggling to find (and re-find!) information that is relevant to their tasks. Debugger Canvas replaces these tabbed documents with a pan-and-zoom presentation of the specific source code that is relevant to the task. This keeps all of the necessary pieces together in one place, eliminating a lot of disorienting navigation steps.

    Debugger Canvas is the result of a bit of serendipity. At last summer’s International Conference on Software Engineering, two separate teams—one from Microsoft Research and one from Brown University—each presented a paper about redesigning programming environments. The two teams quickly discovered each other, found many points of overlap between their designs, and decided to join forces and combine the best of both designs. With support from Microsoft Research Connections, we pulled together a team from Microsoft Research, Brown University, and the Visual Studio product team. The goal was to create a “power tool” (that is, an experimental extension) for Visual Studio that enables professional developers across the world to try out these new ideas. The result: Debugger Canvas.

    The initial public reaction to Debugger Canvas has been overwhelmingly positive both on Twitter and in the comments area of blog posts that are discussing the tool. (One of my favorite tweets: “Thank you Debugger Canvas http://bit.ly/ls7zgn I found the error in secs after I installed you.”)

    Up next: the collaborative team is currently adding enhancements based on user feedback, as well as scheduling interviews with active users to learn how they are using the tool. That feedback, plus other input and personal observations, will inform our next release of the tool.

    Arjmand Samuel, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections, and Rob Deline, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research

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    The Promise of Games in Lifelong Learning

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    We are pleased to announce the launch of a program that is designed to support collaborations between Microsoft Research Connections and major research institutions to build the foundations for a unified game layer for education. Our first official project is Just Press Play, an experiment to craft gameful experiences for the students of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) undergraduate game design program. (Gameful experiences incorporate the use of game play mechanics that focus on the user's intrinsic motivation, engaging the user in a way that can produce long-lasting and powerful results.) You can learn more about the project by visiting the Just Press Play developer blog.

    Just Press Play: Students bringing gameful experiences to education.

    Just Press Play: Students bringing gameful experiences to education.

    Microsoft Research has a long-standing commitment to games for learning, which began more than a decade ago with our support of Henry Jenkins and the MIT Education Arcade through programs like Games to Teach and iCampus. This work complemented games research that was being performed by Michel Pahud, Andy Wilson, and other Microsoft researchers. More recently, we founded the Games for Learning Institute, a consortium of 8 universities, 14 principal investigators, and a small army of graduate students whose mission is to find out what makes games fun, what makes them educational, and to develop patterns that assist developers in the creation of effective educational games.

    One of those principal investigators is Andrew Phelps, director of the RIT School of Interactive Games and Media. Andy began his experiments with games for learning in 2003, when he created the Multi-User Programming Pedagogy for Enhancing Traditional Study (MUPPETS) to teach computational thinking through 3-D graphics and animation. More recently, he and Jessica Bayliss began pushing the boundaries of games in the classroom by conducting an experiment to award experience points to students in lieu of grades. In collaboration with Elizabeth Lawley, director of the RIT Lab for Social Computing and creator of the citizen heritage experiment, Picture the Impossible, he began to develop a much more ambitious idea: create a “frame game” that wraps around the most common activities that are inherent to student life at RIT. In other words, he is developing a platform that deeply integrates with the school’s core student information systems in order to create gameful experiences for students that pervade their online experience, versus their person-to-person interactions. By using this platform and the resulting experiences, he can gather data on student activities, improve student motivation, and reduce attrition in the IGM freshman class.

    The Just Press Play experiment is an important first step in bringing gameful experiences to education, but it is only the beginning. Throughout the year, we intend to announce additional partnerships with other researchers and organizations to build out the foundations of a unified game layer for education. This layer is similar to the social layer developed in the first decade of the twenty-first century to support a unified representation of identity and social networks across websites and applications. The social layer is arguably complete with the creation of the Open Graph protocol and applications such as Bing Social Search. Now we need to begin work on another layer, one that will instrument our everyday experiences, transform these experiences into gameful experiences and, by doing so, provide the inputs to entirely new capabilities such as e-portfolios, adaptive learning, and project-based learning.

    Intrinsic motivation is a primary goal of the game layer, but there are other benefits as well. Because a great deal of data is needed to power these gameful experiences, we are encouraging participants to instrument their the online experience versus person-to-person interactions in a way similar to how Foursquare encourages players to keep track of the places they visit. This instrumentation provides entirely new insights into the worlds of students and educators. It enables large-scale longitudinal studies that span the many institutions of learning that we travel through over the course of our lives. It is the promise of true lifelong learning environments to teach twenty-first-century skills and guide our students along a rewarding journey of lifelong learning. We look forward to inviting you to the game!

    Donald Brinkman, Research Program Manager, Games for Learning, Digital Heritage, Digital Humanities, Microsoft Research Connections

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