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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

    Springtime in Paris and Software Is in the Air

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    Software Summit 2011 in ParisWhat could be better than Paris on a spring day?  How about Paris on a spring day at the inaugural Software Summit sponsored by Microsoft Research?

    Yes, I'm here at the Microsoft Le Campus in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just southwest of central Paris, along with more than 200 of the foremost figures in the European computer-science community.  The Summit underscores the importance of European research and innovation and brings together thought leaders from Europe's high-powered industrial research, academic, and the scientific communities. With so much intellectual wattage on hand, we might need to dim the house lights. Seriously, I'm looking forward to a stimulating three days of panels, workshops, and demos on the state of software research and development.

    Andrew Herbert, chairman of Microsoft Research EMEA, is serving as the Summit host, and Judith Bishop, director of Computer Science for Microsoft Research Connections, is the program chair for the event.

    I'm honored to present one of the event's four keynote addresses, joining Ken Wood, deputy managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge and head of the Computer-Mediated Living group; Wolfram Schulte, principal researcher and founding manager of the Research in Software Engineering team at Microsoft Research Redmond; and Brendan Eich, chief technical officer of the Mozilla Corp. and creator of the JavaScript scripting language. 

    One of the first-day highlights of the Summit was an update on the Kinect for Windows SDK (software development kit) to be released this spring. Echoing yesterday's announcement at the MIX developer conference in Las Vegas, we unveiled three key features of the upcoming Kinect for Windows SDK: robust skeletal tracking, advanced audio capabilities, and XYZ depth camera.  We also announced the launch of a new website for the SDK, where you can subscribe to a newsfeed and be notified as soon as the SDK is available for download. Our hope is that this "starter kit" for application developers will make it easier for the academic research and enthusiast communities to create even richer experiences using Kinect technology. 

    I'm also thrilled to report here on many of the ground-breaking tools and technologies being featured at the Summit, among them F#, a simple and efficient programming language ideal for data-rich, concurrent, and algorithmic development; Pex4fun, a game that awards points for writing code; Project Hawaii, a venture that is exploring how to leverage the cloud to enhance the use of smartphones; and Academic Search, a free search engine that provides quick information about academic researchers' papers, conferences, and journals.

    Above all, I want to stress that the Summit underlines Microsoft Research's long-term commitment to collaboration with the academic and scientific community in Europe, which is an essential part of our ongoing efforts to advance computer science and technology. In that regard, I would especially like to point out the role of Microsoft Research Cambridge, which is home to more 150 dedicated, innovation-minded researchers and supports over 100 Ph.D. students, has hosted 465 student interns over the past seven years, and is currently sponsoring 25 active collaborative research projects. I also want to call out Microsoft Research's three joint research institutes—at the University of Trento, INRIA, and the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre—as well as the European Microsoft Innovation Center in Aachen, Germany, and the new Microsoft Cloud Computing and Interoperability Center, which opened in Brussels just last month.

    I'll be back shortly with more news from the Summit.  Now, however, I've got to polish that keynote address.

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     —Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    MIXing It Up: the Kinect for Windows SDK

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    Kinect for Windows SDK betaBack in February at TechForum, Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, and Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB), announced that Microsoft Research and IEB would release a non-commercial Kinect for Windows software development kit this spring. Addressing a growing body of academic researchers and enthusiasts who are anxious to build applications employing Kinect's natural user interface, Mundie and Mattrick offered tantalizing promises of access to Kinect's system capabilities, including audio, system APIs, and direct control of the Kinect sensor.

    Today at the MIX developer conference in Las Vegas, Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the Microsoft .NET Developer Platform, unveiled three key features of the upcoming Kinect for Windows SDK: robust skeletal tracking, advanced audio capabilities, and XYZ depth camera. He also announced the launch of a new website for the SDK, where you can subscribe to a newsfeed and be notified as soon as the SDK is available for download.

    Our hope is that this "starter kit" for application developers will make it easier for the academic research and enthusiast communities to create even richer experiences by using Kinect technology. Here are a few details on each of the SDK's ground-breaking NUI features:

    • Robust skeletal tracking will provide high-performance capabilities for tracking the skeletal image of one or two people moving within the Kinect field of view.
    • Advanced audio will enable great sound capabilities by using a four-element microphone array with sophisticated acoustic noise and echo cancellation. The advanced audio will also include beam formation to identify the sound source and integration with the Windows speech recognition API.
    • XYZ depth camera will provide a standard color camera stream along with depth data indicating the distance of the object from the Kinect camera. This will give developers access to the raw data and enable the creation of novel interfaces by using the unaltered data.

    As is often the case, the sum of these features is greater than the parts. By combining the audio, depth, and image data, developers will have great opportunities to build deeper NUI experiences. And just to give his audience a taste of what these features will enable, Guthrie demoed a version of the WorldWide Telescope that you can interact with by using gestures—a feature built on the SDK platform.

    MIX was an ideal setting for announcing the new SDK features, as this annual gathering brings together developers, designers, UX experts, and business professionals who are creating some of the most innovative consumer sites on the web and beyond. The SDK feature announcements will be highlighted to the academic research community this week at the Microsoft Research Software Summit in Paris.

    So, it's onward and upward with the Kinect for Windows SDK. We're confident that this non-commercial SDK will fuse the work of Microsoft Research with the creativity of the academic research and enthusiast communities to deliver NUI applications that will revolutionize our relationship with computers.

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    Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Windows 7 Phones Home

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    ASTRA 7 flight train being prepared for launchThese days, much is made of applications that run in the metaphorical cloud.  Well, here's an example of hardware and software that soared through the clouds, both real and metaphorical.  On March 4, the ASTRA 7, a stratospheric gas balloon carrying a mobile phone running the Windows Phone 7 operating system, was launched from the Cotswolds in west-central England.  The hardy phone made its way through the real clouds and into the stratosphere, recording and sending location data that was processed through the virtual cloud of Windows Azure. Part of the University of Southampton's ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) initiative, the launch was designed to test the capabilities of the Windows 7 mobile computing platform in capturing, analyzing, and transmitting location data from unmanned vehicles in the upper atmosphere.

    The phone's logger application included a "hunter mode," which allowed ASTRA staff on the ground to track the payload during its flight, thus enabling its recovery. The application uses Bing Maps to display the location of the balloon payload, the hunter's phone, the locations of the other hunters, as well as the predicted landing location, which was constantly re-computed in the cloud by Windows Azure as new location reports beamed down from the on-board phone.

    Windows Phone 7 at 18,237 meters aboth South Wales

    The ASTRA 7 reached a maximum altitude of 18,237 meters during a flight of 1 hour 16 minutes, soaring deep into the stratosphere, where the ambient pressure was less than 10 percent of its sea level value and the temperature dropped to -58 C. The maximum speed reached by ASTRA 7 was approximately 145 kilometers per hour, logged at an altitude of 10.1 kilometers as the balloon traversed the jet stream. ASTRA 7 landed about 75 kilometers downrange—very close to the pre-flight prediction based on the ASTRA balloon flight simulation model. ASTRA 7 also took more than 1,200 photos during its flight, a small selection of which are included in this blog.

    The phone and the rest of the equipment were protected by a high-grade cell-foam enclosure to ensure the reliable operation of the on-board electronics in the extreme environmental conditions of the upper atmosphere.  The enclosure was manufactured by using a computer-controlled laser cutter at the university's Engineering Design and Manufacturing Centre. As part of the payload bay's development process, the ASTRA team tested the foam enclosure in a vacuum chamber to ensure that its mechanical properties would be satisfactory in the extremely low-pressure environment of the stratosphere.

    On March 8, ASTRA launched a longer flight to see how the technology would cope with more prolonged exposure to stratospheric conditions. The payload, consisting of a Windows Phone 7, battery, and camera, remained airborne for approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, covering about 110 kilometers in the process.

    ASTRA scientists are extremely pleased with the performance of the Windows 7 package, which fits perfectly with the initiative's goal of developing and testing platforms capable of delivering scientific instruments via unmanned vehicles to altitudes ranging from the planetary boundary layer to the upper stratosphere. Dr. András Sóbester, leader of the ASTRA initiative, summed it up nicely: "We are excited that this constitutes a unique opportunity to collect important data that will give new insight into how the upper atmosphere affects Earth's climate and environment, using affordable technology."

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     —Geoff Hughes, Academic Strategy Advisor, Microsoft UK Developer Platform Evangelism

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