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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

    .NET Gadgeteer Redefines What Gadget Fans Can Do with Modular Components and Object-Oriented Programming

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    This example of the Gadgeteer main board has several modules attached through standard connectors. The modules include a display, an LED, button, an Ethernet connection, and a Zigbee radio.Once upon a time, being a "gadget fanatic" usually meant you were an early adopter of new technologies, someone who'd own the latest multi-megapixel digital camera or high-powered handheld device. A rare few with engineering and embedded development programming skills might push this a bit further, creating something new from hardware components by soldering, wiring, and coding a new gizmo into existence. But such aspirations were out of reach for many hobbyists and potential inventors.

    All that is about to change. Before long, gadget groupies will be able to reach the level of custom hardware configuration thanks to the .NET Micro Framework and the forthcoming .NET Gadgeteer rapid prototyping platform. Perhaps best described as building blocks for electronics, an aspiring gadget maker can connect various hardware components (no soldering required), develop functionality by using object-oriented Microsoft .NET programming, and even design a novel enclosure for a custom device. Functions can include sensing the environment, taking pictures, displaying images, playing sounds, and even communicating with other devices and the Internet.

    In the coming year, .NET Micro Framework hardware modules—including displays, sensors, cameras, radios, MP3 players, and Ethernet ports—are expected to become available for purchase through third-party partners. The prototype hardware, available in kits to select researchers, was recently shared at the 2010 New York Maker Faire event for do-it-yourself technologists. The platform's inventor, Nicolas Villar, demonstrated the system with his Microsoft Research colleagues James Scott, Steve Hodges, and Kerry Hammil, together with the product unit manager for the .NET Micro Framework, Colin Miller. Attendees were impressed by the Gadgeteer demos, which included an MP3 player, a Simon-type matching game, and a remote sensing system that enabled users to control a camera. One attendee became so enthralled with the technology that he picked it up and started demoing it to others! The booth went on to win the Maker Faire "Editor's Choice Best-in-Show" and "Most Interactive Demo" awards.

    This is an exploded view of the Simon game (which was made as a demo for Maker Faire) showing the Gadgeteer modules and the custom case.Since Maker Faire, Microsoft Research has been developing the infrastructure needed to further develop Gadgeteer as a product and partnering with high school and university teachers to bring Gadgeteer to students. At an internal Microsoft "science fair" event, it beat out tough technological competitors to take the "President's Award" given by Terry Crowley, a technical fellow and the director of development for Microsoft Office.

    If you're interested in seeing the .NET Gadgeteer in action, you can view the Channel 9 video demonstration and the Make Magazine video from Maker Faire. Additional opportunities to see Gadgeteer in person are planned for the TEI 2011 Conference in January 2011 and Microsoft Research Software Summit in April 2011. If you're an educator who is interested in Gadgeteer, visit the .NET Micro Framework Academic page to get involved.

    —Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche and Stewart Tansley, Research Program Managers in the External Research division of Microsoft Research

    P.S. Here's a festive example (semantic Christmas lights!) of what you can do with .NET Micro Framework, which should be even easier with Gadgeteer.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Amplifying the Computer Science Education Message

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    In case you missed it, there was a great deal of passion expressed last week regarding the state of computer science education in our society. There were outreach efforts, programs highlighted, and a number of online discussions that ensued—overall, some really impressive growth in activity across the board over last year in broad awareness.

    I decided to use the opportunity to spend a bit more dedicated time catching up on some online reports, material, and people.

    I started with Alfred Thompson's blog. He writes one of the most widely-read and highly-respected blogs on computer science in K-12. A former high school teacher, Alfred is smart, funny, and honest, but most importantly he has an amazing talent for appreciating the perspective of today’s youth, a solid understanding of pedagogy, and a passion and talent for computer science. His blog is stop #1, #2, and #3 for me on this topic.

    Mark Guzdial's Computing Education Blog is usually where I spend my time next. Mark’s comments are usually more education-centric than Alfred’s more broad technology posts. As a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, Mark sees, first-hand, the quality and quantity of students from our secondary school system. Mark is also very involved in the most active higher education debates on computer science and he frequently exchanges relevant opinions and ideas with other influencers in the field.

    I also took time to read the September 2010 update of "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which is posted on the National Academies Press website. Sobering, alarming, convincing, and motivating. This revision is appropriate subtitled: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.

    Doing a bit of reflecting, and potentially stating the obvious ... the challenge is enormous and sometimes feels overwhelming, but it is also worth both support and action—even if the action seems small relative to the change needed.

    It is extremely satisfying to work for Microsoft in this situation because I feel that we are working toward the public good in this area and that I am a contributing member of these efforts.

    Microsoft supports thousands of people involved in outreach, including our own employees, who are frequent visitors and speakers at schools through a program called EduConnect, which enables Microsoft employees to share their knowledge and expertise with local school districts. We extend our outreach through the skills and enthusiasm of our Microsoft Student Partners—a program that recognizes top college students who are passionate about technology and communication, and equips them to share their computer know-how and enthusiasm. 

    We also attempt to motivate students through programs like the Imagine Cup and the upcoming Microsoft bliink 2011 web-design contest. Some students are more motivated by out-of-classroom learning situations and these programs encourage students to exercise both creativity and teamwork.

    Obviously, our efforts would not be complete without connection through social medial, and I believe the Microsoft Tech Student effort is the best of the lot.

    If you're a computer scientist, an IT professional, or simply a concerned citizen, I encourage you to get involved with your local schools and work to ensure that our students are getting the 21st-century education they need.

    —Jim Pinkelman, Senior Director in the External Research division of Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Building a Better Speller: Bing and Microsoft Research Offer Prizes for Best Search Engine Spelling Alteration Services

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    Speller Challenge, presented by Microsoft Research in partnership with Bing

    When you type a word or phrase into a search engine, there are a number of things that could go wrong. You might not know how a term is spelled or, in your rush to jump to the results, you could transpose or otherwise mistype some characters.

    Spelling alteration is a popular search technique used to translate apparent typographical errors, alternative spellings, and synonyms into an improved query that returns the best possible results on the first try.

    But this approach is not without its pitfalls. You might enter a word correctly that's not widely used but has a neighbor in the dictionary that's much more popular on the Internet. One person's spelling error could be another's perfect query. Which results should the search engine provide, and how should any useful alternative searches be represented? 

    That's the task being offered to researchers and students around the world in the Speller Challenge, presented by Microsoft Research in partnership with Bing. The goal is to develop a spelling alteration system suitable for large-scale statistical data mining-based web search.

    A common approach to spelling alteration is the noisy channel model, in which the received query (q) is treated as a noise-corrupted version of the target query (c). In this model, the spelling alteration system alters q into c and returns the latter's results. The techniques to best identify query/target pairs and best estimate these statistics are the active research problem that underlies this challenge.

    But that's just the foundation. Place the spelling alteration task in the context of web search, and you have another dimension to consider. For a lot of spelling applications, target queries are assumed to be composed of tokens (i.e., words and phrases) that are drawn from a predetermined vocabulary. The effectiveness of using a fixed lexicon is a known problem because it can lead the speller not only to miss "real word" errors but also misrecognize out-of-vocabulary tokens as errors.

    In the context of search, the scale of the web magnifies this problem considerably. The challenge is therefore not necessarily to alter queries to conform to a specific dictionary of words and phrases, but rather provide relevant documents that have high matching scores in ranking.

    If this sounds like the type of problem you (or the search developer in your life) would enjoy solving, the task is to build the best speller web service that proposes the most plausible spelling alternatives for a wide range of search queries. Spellers are encouraged to take advantage of cloud computing and must be submitted to the challenge in the form of REST (Representational State Transfer) web services.

    For the purpose of the Speller Challenge, a development dataset (derived from the publicly available TREC queries that are based on the 2008 Million Query Track) will be made available to the public through the Microsoft Web N-gram service. This TREC Evaluation Dataset is annotated by using the same guidelines and processes as in the creation of the Bing Test Dataset, which is the dataset used to select the winners.

    The top five competitors will receive the following prizes:

    First place US$10,000
    Second place US$8,000
    Third place US$6,000
    Fourth place US$4,000
    Fifth place US$2,000

     —Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing for the External Research division of Microsoft Research

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