I love working for Microsoft!

I guess that’s self-evident considering my role, and this blog, but it’s on mornings like this that it becomes more than a trite response to people asking how I enjoy my job.

I’m in LA, as in Los Angeles, at the Professional Developers Conference, and have just finished listening to the 4th keynote of the event. Rick Rashid, the head of Microsoft Research ran us through “Research for the 21st Century” complete with the usual thought provoking questions, and seemingly commonplace (at least in MSR) demonstrations. To be frank, it started a little slow, especially in the context of the announcements we’ve made this week.

Yep, there are the sensors we’ve developed to instrument environments (e.g. buildings, datacenters and in the wild) which help direct energy efficiently, and reduce the effects of global warming. But that’s hardly a new concept, although there were some new applications envisioned. Then there was the research into curing HIV, again something that’s been happening for the last, oh 30 years or so. The interesting anecdote is that the work MSR does here is based on the same statistical research we use to develop tools to combat SPAM. Who’d have thought?

But 3 products/projects at the end of the presentation reinvigorated my sense of wonder, and rekindled the passion I have in working for this industry generally, and Microsoft specifically:

  • Worldwide Telescope – launched today was the most recent edition, Equinox. Besides having access to all the telescopes on, and off, the planet, Equinox has data from the recent Mars Missions, and enables a view of all of the Visible Universe. Pardon? All of the visible universe? Yep. Some 500 000 galaxies, or 21 Gigaparsecs of light. (Remember the Millennium Falcon can do the “Kessel Run” in 12 parsecs) – Actually amateurs, using ealier versions of WWT, have already discovered astronomical objects missed by professional astronomers.
  • Boku – unfortunately this won’t be launched for some time. But Boku is a great game to teach kids to program. It has compelling graphics and environments, with a programmable rules engine. It looks like incredible fun and I wanted to play with it, let alone get it for the kids.

But by far the most impressive technology I’ve seen for some time is:

  • Second Light – this allows you to interact with a surface computer above the surface of the computer. So consider a Surface Computer and all the interaction you have between physical devices and the software on the device. Then take that interaction to another surface above the computer. So an example is a picture of the stars on the surface, and as you hold a piece of tracing paper at some distance above the Surface you see display on the paper details about the constellations.

Another application was a transparent pane which re-projected a movie from the Surface. What this allowed was refactoring of the image. In simplest terms you could reorient the image from the Surface vertically, and even interact with it. Think of Sean Bean and Ewan McGregor interacting with the table computer in “The Island” combined with Tom Cruise using the transparent slates and images in “Minority Report” Mindblowing!

But just how practical is this really? I can think of dozens of applications, just off the top of my head:

  • How about doctor looking at an x-ray, MRI or ultrasound image, and as they wave their chart over the image they get all of the medical history, research and prognosis information.
  • Or a student looking at a picture of a tree, and as they hold their book over the image they can see overlays of particular internal structures, along with information about the particular species
  • Or an aircraft mechanic looking at the schematics of an engine and getting information on the maintenance and flight history
  • Or a home purchaser buying a house and being able to view the inside of each room, along with alternate furnishings

Manufacturing, health, finance, education, all of these fields have immediate, and significant, practical applications for this technology.