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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.

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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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    WorldWide Telescope Revolutionizes Astronomy 101

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    Recently, when I delivered my presentation, The Revolution in Astronomy Curricula Introduced by WorldWide Telescope (WWT), at INTED2011, I heard frequent comments from the audience that the variety of potential educational uses for WWT is "fascinating." The presentation was made possible by a collaboration between the Microsoft Research Connections' WorldWide Telescope group, the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), and the Central China Normal University (CCNU). The successful reception of WWT at INTED2011 reminded me of all the wonderful things that WWT has enabled in China and throughout the world.

    To develop and grow a user community successfully, it is important to start by training the trainers. Focused on creating science educators for universities and high schools, CCNU is one of the most influential universities in education and pedagogy research in China. For more than two years, Microsoft Research Connections' WWT group and NAOC have been working with CCNU to integrate WWT into the astronomy research and education curriculum at CCNU. The development and outcome are reported in the papers, "Science Data Based Astronomy Education" and "The Revolution in Astronomy Curricula Introduced by WorldWide Telescope (WWT)" (upcoming at INTD2011 Publications).

    Educators from more than 40 institutes in China attended the first WWT Teachers’ Training Workshop, August 1–3, 2010, Beijing, China.

    Educators from more than 40 institutes in China attended the first WWT Teachers’ Training Workshop, August 1–3, 2010, Beijing, China.

    In addition to the efforts at CCNU, the WWT Teachers' Training Workshop 2010 was conducted jointly by CCNU, NAOC, and Microsoft Research in August 2010. Due to popular demand, we will jointly host the WWT Teachers' Training Workshop 2011 in China from July 21 to 24, 2011. The strategy to "train the trainers" has made the WWT user community grow exponentially in China.

    The success at CCNU is just one example of how the WorldWide Telescope program helps Microsoft Research Connections engage with enthusiastic scientists worldwide. This particular long-term collaboration is succeeding beyond our original expectations for everyone involved in the project.

    For example:

    • Due to her innovative work with WWT, Dr. Cuilan Qiao (our principle investigator at CCNU), received her tenured position last year and is changing the education paradigm by integrating digital information technologies with the science curricula.
    • As a result of the contributions he has made to science outreach by using WWT during the last three years, Dr. Chenzhou Cui at NAOC has been assigned by the NAOC to be in charge of developing the Science Outreach Plan for the observatory's twelfth Five-Year Plan. This is an extraordinary honor for a young Chinese scientist.
    • I have been invited by to become an honorary professor at CCNU, and I will accept this honor on behalf of all of us at Microsoft Research.

    Next month, I will be in Moscow to co-host the workshop, WWT for Gagarin Celebration and Beyond, with Microsoft Russia and Moscow State University. I'm looking forward to another experience of using WWT to help empower the research and academic communities in the advancement of science and education.

    Note: It would be an omission to overlook the substantial impression that WWT has made in the astronomy and science education communities in the United States as well. Look for a future blog in which my team members and I commemorate the three-year anniversary of the WorldWide Telescope.

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     —Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Computer Science Research Tools Excite Faculty at SIGCSE

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    From March 9-12, a group of Microsoft researchers had their wares on display at SIGCSE 2011, this year's annual convention of the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (ACM SIGCSE). Held in Dallas, SIGCSE 2011 attracted some 1,200 participants from all over the world, making it the year's biggest computer science education conference.

    SIGCSE 2011

    The passion to develop applications is never more evident than among young people, and educators know they must run to keep up with the latest trends to get the best out of their keen students. It is this sense of urgency that I felt in the halls and venues at SIGCSE, as faculty debated such questions as "What is the next language?" "How can we incorporate parallelism or robotics or gaming?" and "How do we train enough teachers to get enough students to fill the talent pipeline?"

    Standing in the constantly-busy Microsoft booth at SIGCSE 2011, it did seem as if we had a good number of answers. At the .NET Gadgeteer stand, sound, pictures, and robots combined to appeal to people who thought they wouldn't want to be programmers. Fortunately, .NET Gadgeteer will be available to the public mid-year 2011.

    Those visiting Pex4Fun immediately saw it as a means to reach out to students after classes are over, keeping them engaged with coding puzzles. Pex4Fun is available online for free. Many academics recognized the potential of taking the technology to the next ubiquitous platform, mobile devices.  Watch the PEX4FUN Windows Phone 7: A Mobile Game for Programmers video on Channel 9.  

    Another Microsoft demo, Try F#, elicited this from Jan Cuny, director at the National Science Foundation and a staunch advocate for more teachers of computer science at K-12 levels: "In schools and classrooms where the computer platforms are heterogeneous, a browser-based approach is going to help enormously to provide access for all to the new technologies. This solution will be particularly valuable in low-resourced schools where it is difficult to load and maintain a variety of software."

    One of the joys of SIGCSE is bumping into old friends. Doug Blank from Bryn Mawr—who for several years was part of the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE), introducing robotics to students—now has a system that takes advantage of the dynamic language runtime of Microsoft .NET to bring C#, Python, Ruby, Scheme, and other languages to students so they can write scripts to drive robots, and more. The striking similarities between his system, Pyjama, and Try F# mean that we can learn from each other and connect up again. IPRE participated in the cool, 40-robot Robot Hoedown. Since SIGCSE, Doug informs us that he has added support for F# to Pyjama; as I said—dedicated educators certainly move fast.

    On the last day, the winners of the SIGCSE ACM Student Research Contest, sponsored by Microsoft Research, were announced. Judging from the posters, the standard has certainly risen steadily over the past ten years. Several of the students presented work done as members of teams, but the awards are given for their own individual contribution. In this way, Microsoft encourages collaboration and rewards excellence. It is through collaboration that the strength of Microsoft Research is amplified, and our future is with the faculty of tomorrow.

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    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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