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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

    TouchDevelop in Your Browser

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    TouchDevelopAre you looking for a little extra cash for the upcoming holidays? Then you might be interested in creating some cool apps to sell in the Windows Store. Or maybe you’re simply curious and want to try your hand at developing for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. In either case, the newly released TouchDevelop Web App is for you.

    TouchDevelop Web App is a development environment to create apps on your tablet or smartphone, without requiring a separate PC. Scripts written by using TouchDevelop can access data, media, and sensors on the phone, tablet, and PC. The script can interact with cloud services, including storage, computing, and social networks. TouchDevelop lets you quickly create fun games and useful tools, turning your scripts into true Windows Phone and Windows 8 apps.
     
    A year ago, Microsoft Research released TouchDevelop for Windows Phone, which is being used by enthusiasts, students, and researchers to program their phones in fun, inventive, and interesting ways. These scripts are available at TouchDevelop for anyone to download and use.

    Ever since we released TouchDevelop, we’ve been eyeing the tablet form factor and working on a version for the browser. Now, with the release of TouchDevelop Web App, the wait is over: the tablet version is ready, so go play around with it.

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    All TouchDevelop scripts that are developed on the smartphone can be downloaded to the tablet and run (if hardware allows). Any script that is developed on the tablet can also be accessed on the phone. And scripts can be converted to Windows Phone or Windows 8 apps and submitted to the Windows Phone Store or Windows Store, respectively.

    TouchDevelop Web App’s editor and programming language have been designed for tablet devices with touchscreens, but you can also use a keyboard and a mouse. So grab your web-enabled device and give the TouchDevelop Web App a try. It’s fun and easy, and could even put a little cash in your holiday-depleted wallet. Or at least give you bragging rights at family get-togethers.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Unlocking Academic Success with Frame Games for Learning

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    Unlocking academic success with frame games for learning

    It began with a simple question: “Why can’t students earn digital rewards for being awesome?” A research group comprised of university faculty, staff, and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) decided to find out. The team delved into the everyday travails of college life—from academia to social activities—and developed a real-world game, Just Press Play, which helps students earn a digital reward for the ultimate achievement: collegiate success.

    Each game participant receives trading cards equipped with secret codes and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) keychain that they can swipe to “check-in” at permanent and temporary locations. The cards and the keychain are just the first two tools that the students must learn to use in order to progress through the various aspects of the game. The game is based around challenges that occur both online and in the real world. The challenges are designed to encourage students to venture out of their comfort zones and get involved in all aspects of school—including interactions with school faculty and staff. Completing the challenges also gives the player access to web pages and videos that tell the story of an alternate history of RIT.

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    Blending Technology and the Humanities

    The alternate history of RIT describes a battle fought between two rival factions: The Athenaeum and the Mechanics Institute. The Athenaeum represents the creative and exploratory aspects of a student’s academic journey and the Mechanics Institute represents technical mastery. In order to succeed, the student must understand both aspects, although they may ultimately join one side or the other.

    As the program manager who chose to fund this project, it should come as no surprise that I have a background in both science and art—and that I manage programs in games for learning as well as digital humanities. Our project team likes how RIT blends the technology and humanities disciplines. RIT focuses not only on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—but also on what we like to call STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

    Financial support for the development of Just Press Play was provided by Microsoft Research. This project is also the culmination of three years of collaboration with RIT’s School of Interactive Games and Media as part of our Games for Learning Institute. The mission of the institute is to study and create games that are fun, educational, and effective. Just Press Play fits that bill perfectly.

    Just Press Play officially launched on October 13 at the RIT School of Interactive Games and Media. The kick-off event was streamed live to project partners at the University of Wisconsin, Teachers College at Columbia, and the New York Law School. These partners are assessing the effectiveness of the program and also exploring legal issues related to gameful education.

    Next Steps

    The Just Press Play team intends to expand the game throughout RIT next year if the initial pilot is successful, but other educational institutions will have to wait a bit before trying out the technology for themselves. Just Press Play will initially be available exclusively to students enrolled at RIT. The Just Press Play team will refine the structure of the game based on early results and then roll it out to partner schools at a later date. The developers are hopeful that the lessons learned from these early “games” could eventually be expanded to include more college-level institutions and, potentially, all education starting with pre-school and extending through lifelong learning and professional training.

    The ultimate goal of the Microsoft Research Gameful Education project is to support the development of a unified game layer for education, one that can unify gameful experiences across schools and technologies. This platform will drive better educational outcomes and enable entirely new types of educational research.

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

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    Chemistry Add-in for Word Helps Bridge the Gap between Science and Technology

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    Could a semantic, chemical authoring tool be developed for Microsoft Word? The paper and PDF formats that are the standard vehicles for scholarly communication are great at presenting natural language for people to read, but are not as good at carrying the machine-interpretable semantic data that is becoming an increasingly important aspect of making sense of today's "data deluge." Tony Hey, Savas Parastatidis, and Lee Dirks from Microsoft Research initially discussed this possibility with Dr. Peter Murray-Rust of the Unilever Centre at Cambridge University back in 2007. Peter is considered the "father" of Chemical Markup Language (CML is a semantic XML representation of chemical entities) and explained that a large percentage of chemists use Microsoft Word to write their research papers. He hoped that by incorporating CML into Word, he could expedite his idea of developing a semantic, chemical authoring tool. We wondered if Peter would partner with us in this endeavor. Suffice it to say that when he agreed to sign on, a project was soon underway.

    I first met Peter and Joe Townsend in early 2008, just after I joined the Microsoft External Research team. Peter, Joe, and Jim Downing were all visiting Redmond to discuss making this idea a reality through a joint development project between our team in Redmond and Peter and his team in Cambridge. I was asked to serve as the program manager for this adventure.

    We all had a common vision for what we wanted to achieve, but we faced many obstacles. Multiple time zones, varying degrees of programming language familiarity, different project management styles, and a total lack of chemistry knowledge on my part made the first six months a little slow going.

    Still, we made progress: Embedding the CML files for each molecule referenced in the document was fairly straightforward. One of the nice features of the new DOCX format is that each file is basically a ZIP file—a container into which we could park each bit of chemistry as its own XML file. And we could also anchor these to bits of text in the document itself (in other words, the document.xml file).

    So far, so good—as long as the thing in the document was text. Or an image. In fact, we got by for a while by having a handy PNG graphic for each of the molecules that we had in CML, so that when we imported a CML file we could also slip the pre-fabricated graphic into the document. It couldn't be edited, but it made the point to the casual observer that a human could see a two-dimensional (2-D) representation of the molecule, or the label in the document. More importantly, it demonstrated that a machine can understand the underlying semantics of the chemistry by reading the CML representation.

    But what about all the fancy subscripts and superscripts, and pre-sub, and pre-super, and sub-super, or super-super scripts required of charges, electrons, isotopes, hydrogen dots, labels, and so forth? For this, we looked to Murray Sargent, the guru of all things mathematical and the driving force behind the great equation editing features in recent releases of Word. After reviewing our options, we decided to build upon Word's math zone features. This would allow us to take advantage of the work already done to support the complex and flexible layout required of mathematical equations.  

    Meanwhile, our team was spending a good deal of time reviewing options for our 2-D chemical editor. We ended up launching a separate Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) pane from within Word, which reads in the CML, renders it, and allows the user to perform various editing functions, all while preserving a certain amount of "chemical intelligence."

    This was not just characters and lines on a drawing board. When you select a particular atom, the options that you get for editing are dependent on the sorts of things that are chemically viable in that particular structure. And when you save an edited structure, the Chemistry Add-in for Word (Chem4Word)  writes the modified CML back into the DOCX package, creates a PNG (for viewing in the document), updates the chemical formula, and prompts the user to update any of the other labels from the CML file.

    Once this initial work was established, we brought the chemical intelligence developers and the WPF developers closer together—in the U.K.—so they could meet in person more frequently. This helped move the project along at a good pace, culminating in our beta release at the American Chemical Society Annual Meeting in March 2010.

    Screen capture of Chemistry Add-in for Word

    Since the beta release, most of the work has been on Joe's shoulders. He has done significant clean-up, fixing bugs and taking in a lot of usability feedback (especially from his students). Most importantly, he has added the ability to look up existing molecular structures via existing web services at the NCBI's PubChem and the Unilever Centre's OPSIN databases. These can be used in the Chem4Word version 1.0 ribbon via load from PubChem.

    I am extremely proud of this project and I am thrilled to finally see version 1.0 released to the world. We have so much more to do, however. A colleague in the U.K. recently helped explain the potential directions:

    "The future of research will be powered not only by ever more rapid dissemination of ever large quantities of data, but also by software tools that 'understand' something about science. These tools will behave intelligently with respect to the information they process, and will free their human users to spend more time doing the things that humans do best: generating ideas, designing experiments, and making discoveries," said Timo Hannay, Managing Director for Digital Science at MacMillan Publishers Ltd. "Chem4Word is one of the best examples so far of this important new development at the interface between science and technology."

    The Chem4Word project was one of our team's first open source releases. Just after the beta release last March, we launched the source code project on CodePlex under an Apache 2.0 license. And today, we are announcing that the project has joined the Research Accelerators gallery as a part of the Outercurve Foundation.

    Here's to a long and happy future for the Chem4Word project—we hope it will offer the community a method for better facilitating and enabling semantic chemistry.

    —Alex Wade, Director of Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research

    For more information, check out the Chemistry Add-in for Word press release.

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