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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

    Supporting the innovation pipeline

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    Through our collaborations with academic researchers around the world, Microsoft Research strives to harness the power and potential of computer science. We are constantly looking for new, creative uses of computing to help solve both theoretical and practical problems and engender economic and social benefits. This blog focuses on one such research project.

    Collaboration leads to quick and easy fabrication of circuit boards

    Yoshihiro Kawahara, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, is devoted to solving real-world problems through the fusion of information science, hardware, and electromagnetics. Small wonder, then, that he received the 2014 Microsoft Research Japan New Faculty Award, which recognizes outstanding new faculty and encourages them to realize their potential in pursuing computer science research. Kawahara was honored for his work on building smart environments by using low-cost, intelligent sensors. To make such sensors more readily available, he has developed, in collaboration with Steve Hodges of Microsoft Research Cambridge, a technology that enables people to inexpensively prototype electrical circuits and sensors by using inkjet printers.

    Yoshihiro Kawahara displays his Japan New Faculty Award with Sadaoki Furui, president of Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago and chair of the award committee, on June 4, 2014, at Microsoft Japan.
    Professor Yoshihiro Kawahara (left) and Dr. Sadaoki Furui, president of Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago and chair of the award committee (right), display Kawahara’s Japan New Faculty Award plaque on June 4, 2014, at Microsoft Japan.

    Have you ever made your own electronic circuits? Unfortunately, the usual approach, which entails soldering components to a copper circuit board, poses a barrier for many beginners. Together with colleagues from Georgia Tech, Kawahara and Hodges proposed a much easier and more accessible technology by using a common inkjet printer.

    Their technology enables the creation of various electric circuits, touch sensors, and antennas by using common devices and materials. With the synergy of 3D printing and open-source hardware, this technology allows even inexperienced experimenters and hobbyists to make their own circuits quickly, easily, and inexpensively.

    A circuit that was printed on an inkjet printer by using the technique developed by Kawahara and HodgesThe circuit pictured on the left was printed on an inkjet printer, using the technique developed by Kawahara and Hodges. This innovative process is not only inexpensive, it also eliminates the tedious work of hand soldering the components.

    With the support of Microsoft Research’s CORE program and Masaaki Fukumoto of Microsoft Research, Kawahara and Hodges are expanding their work in hopes of creating fundamental tools and techniques to make double-sided and multilayer circuit boards, including mechanisms to fabricate through-hole vias, and they are implementing applications for .NET Gadgeteer.

    Turning research ideas into real business

    Beyond receiving accolades from the academic community, Kawahara and Hodges’ instant inkjet circuits are also opening up new business opportunities. Entrepreneur Shinya Shimizu was one of the first to see the technology’s potential to enable almost anyone to make their own circuit boards. He left his job at the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., lined up an investor, and founded a startup called AgIC to develop and sell a toolkit based on the instant inkjet circuit technology. Shimizu demonstrated a prototype at the renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in the United States last March, and he launched an experimental project in Kickstarter a month later, which received almost US$80,000 through crowdfunding. AgIC was selected as the Best Company as part of the Microsoft Innovation Award 2014, sponsored by Microsoft Ventures Tokyo, which will provide AgIC with further marketing and business alliance support.

    Shinya Shimizu, CEO of AgIC, and Shunichi Kajisa, CTO of Microsoft Japan, at presentation of AgIC’s Microsoft Innovation Award on May 30, 2014, in Tokyo
    Shinya Shimizu, CEO of AgIC (left), and Shunichi Kajisa, CTO of Microsoft Japan (right), at presentation of AgIC’s Microsoft Innovation Award on May 30, 2014, in Tokyo

    This work is just one example of how Microsoft is collaborating with talented individuals around the world on innovative academic research. We are very happy to see our academic collaborations resulting in practical applications that advance technology and will, we hope, help spark new ideas.

    Noboru Kuno, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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    Summer school in Russia explores research in the cloud

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    Microsoft Research’s various summer schools provide excellent opportunities to work with our academic partners to foster the next generation of computer scientists and breakthrough applications. So with great anticipation, I headed to Moscow for the 2014 summer school in Russia, which took place over the sunny days of July 30 to August 6.

    The summer school is Microsoft Research’s largest annual event in Russia. Since its inception in 2009, it has tackled a wide array of cutting-edge computing topics, including:

    This year’s event, which was co-sponsored by Lomonosov Moscow State University and Yandex (one of Russia’s leading Internet companies), focused on conducting research in the cloud. Our goal was to train a new generation of researchers to build cloud-based tools and services that will support scientific discovery in this age of “big data.”

    Faculty, students, and staff of the 2014 summer school in Moscow
    Faculty, students, and staff of the 2014 summer school in Moscow

    At past summer schools, we’ve focused on assembling a student body consisting primarily of young computer scientists. This year, we expanded the student selection to include researchers from any academic discipline who have an understanding of basic scientific data analysis and programming skills. More than 600 students and professionals, including graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as young scientists and developers, applied. After a very selective process, 42 students, representing universities and research institutions in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, were admitted to the seven-day course. The attendees included candidates doing trailblazing research in mathematics, computer science, geology, engineering, cryptology, space monitoring, photonics and optics, bioinformatics, and aero and plasma physics.

    The faculty for the school was selected for their wide range of experience in research applications of cloud computing. Tony Hey from Microsoft Research gave the opening address and set the context for the rest of the week. Professor Geoffrey Fox of Indiana University (United States) covered topics related to scalable data analysis algorithms and the rapidly expanding open-source cloud software stack. Professor Sergey Berezin of Lomonosov Moscow State University talked about the challenges of building client-plus-cloud applications, describing the creation of desktop and web applications that use the cloud for analysis and data visualization. Professor Paul Watson of Newcastle University (United Kingdom) lectured on cloud workflows for scientific applications, hybrid cloud security, and cost models; and Sergey Bykov of Microsoft Research discussed a next-generation cloud-computing platform, the recently released Orleans cloud-programming toolkit.

    The august faculty notwithstanding, the students proved to be the real stars of the school. We started them off with a one-day training on how to use Microsoft Azure and provided each student with a small Azure account to use for their projects. At the end of the first day, we asked them to form into small teams to build a cloud application. With only one full day and three days outside of class hours to work on their projects, the outcomes, which they presented on the final day of class, were simply astounding. The topics ranged from highly scientific areas, such as bioinformatics and satellite orbital guidance, to social networks and the Internet of Things. The students integrated ideas from the lectures and truly understood why the cloud is a very different paradigm of computing than any they had encountered in the past.

    The faculty honored the best projects in four categories:

    • Most original: the winning team built a social network for musicians called Cloud Tunes. This application combined the usual social network topic-based communication system with geo-location, so that a band looking for a new member could select one based on the musician’s location on Bing maps.
    • Most scalable: the award went to a parallel computer-graphics movie-rendering system capable of taking a script of viewpoint and camera move positions or simulation parameters. The winning team did a complete analysis of the performance and scalability of their system.
    • Most elegant: the selected project integrated a number of open-source cloud software tools and built a real-time sentiment analysis of stack overflow questions and responses on Microsoft Azure. The application could plot storms of interest around various software releases, including the latest release of Visual Studio.
    • Best overall: this honor went to an interactive cloud service that takes a user’s English text and discovers subtle grammar errors. By building on Microsoft Web N-gram services, the winning team produced extremely impressive results.

    The faculty had a difficult time selecting the winners, as so many of the teams demonstrated creativity, collaboration, and amazing energy. Yandex provided gifts for the winners and hosted a lovely end-of-school party at their Moscow headquarters. Microsoft Research is already looking forward to next year’s summer school in Russia, where we will again strive to push computer science and research applications to new heights.

    Dennis Gannon, Director, Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Big data tamed with the cloud

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    Big data: it’s the hot topic these days, promising breakthroughs in just about every field, from medicine to marketing to machine learning and more. But for many of us, the problems of managing big data hit home when we confront the welter of digital photos and videos we have recorded with our smartphones and cameras. Multiply this by the number of people doing this around the world and it is a big problem. On the surface, it does not seem like an endeavor on the order of treating cancer (more on that later), but it is a colossal headache to organize, classify, search, and retrieve our multimedia content—and designing systems to do this at scale effectively is a huge challenge.

    Big data management for pictures and video

    Thankfully, Professor Heiko Schuldt and Ivan Giangreco of the Databases and Information Systems (DBIS) Group at the University of Basel are working on a project to do just that, and a whole lot more. Their integrated system harnesses the power of the cloud, through Microsoft Azure, to understand and sort through the terabytes of data that make up multimedia content to find and return like objects.

    The Basel team’s system combines the power of relational databases, with the adaptability of information retrieval systems. The Basel system can handle and store any type of multimedia data, including their features. When an algorithm for feature extraction is defined, the system automatically executes the extraction, storage, and indexing of both the feature data and the object itself. This approach efficiently carries out Boolean queries as well as searches based on ranking images based on their feature similarity scores. In addition, it provides novel query paradigms and interfaces; for example, you can sketch an image or parts thereof and find images that are similar to your sketch.

    It's exciting to see how this work has progressed since the Basel researchers attended our first European Microsoft Azure for Research training workshop at ETH Zurich last November. They successfully applied for an Azure Award, which got them up and running on the cloud within a few weeks. This allowed the team to quickly develop and deploy their system in a scalable way. Microsoft Azure is ideal as a fast, distributed storage and computing fabric for running the Basel team’s project, whose MapReduce-style program can grow as millions of images are added to the system. By moving to the cloud, the Basel researchers have been able to develop, deploy, and demonstrate the system, testing their ideas at scale on the 14 million images that comprise the ImageNet database. They presented this work at the IEEE International Congress on Big Data (BigData 2014).

    Professor Schuldt explains how Azure has helped him with his research. "In large-scale image retrieval, both effectiveness and efficiency are essential requirements. Thanks to Microsoft’s support and the use of the Azure cloud, we have been able to successfully address the retrieval efficiency so that we can concentrate further on retrieval effectiveness, especially by developing novel search paradigms and user interfaces based, for instance, on gestures or sketches."

    The Basel researchers are looking forward to tackling the even bigger Bing Clickture dataset, which contains 40 million images. They also plan to test the system on video content, in what they’re calling the IMOTION project, which will “multiply the challenges in terms of retrieval efficiency,” notes Professor Schuldt. Their next paper was presented at 37th International ACM-SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval, and we're looking forward to seeing how the team continues to push the boundaries of big data by using Microsoft Azure.

    Now back to that earlier comment about treating cancer. Approaches similar to those used by the Basel team’s project might, in fact, someday help us to better understand and treat cancer. The underlying computer science and cloud technologies could be used, for example, for managing and analyzing MRI scans of tumors.

    The Basel team’s project is just one example of how easy it is to get up and running on the cloud and accelerate your research—especially when by taking advantage of the Microsoft Azure for Research initiative, which offers not only training but also substantial grants of Azure storage and compute resources for qualified projects. Read about the initiative and our requests for proposals. Who knows? Maybe your project will be the next big thing in big data.

    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research

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