Rashid: Microsoft Research

Rashid: Microsoft Research

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Microsoft Research has over 700 employees located across five locations worldwide. Rick Rashid demonstrated some of the innovations covering presentation, storage and communication - three of the Longhorn pillars.

Presentation
Microsoft presented 11 out 80 papers at SIGGRAPH this year. We're seeing an increasing reliance on the GPU: it's turning into one of the most important components in a system. A paper on "precomputed radiance transfer" demonstrated complex reflection and shading techniques that aren't currently available in real-time applications, including an object creating shadows on itself. It's the kind of thing you could imagine showing up in future releases of DirectX.

Water rendering is one of the most complex graphical tasks: it involves simulating reflection and refraction. Generating a water texture requires simulating microfacets on a water surface (the surface isn't flat at any one time but the reflective / refractive surface is constantly changing with different angles at each location). Other textures MSR are investigating include fur and grass.

Storage
Back in 1998 Microsoft made a big splash about the TerraServer - one of the first terabyte databases to be made available on the web. Now, a terabyte of storage can be purchased for £1000. Now Jim Gray (one of the founding fathers of modern database theory and Turing Award winner) and his research colleagues have been working on SkyServer, like TerraServer but looking the other way. http://skyserver.sdss.org. This is a digital sky survey of the northern 1/3rd of the universe, covering 10TB of pictures plus 1TB of catalog information and containing a total of 3 billion records inside a SQL Server database. http://skyserver.sdss.org/dr1/en/tools/chart/navi.asp shows an XML web service for accessing this information. You can even query the database using T-SQL here (http://skyserver.sdss.org/dr1/en/tools/chart/list.asp).

We've also built a virtual observatory at http://skyquery.net. This is a federated database that combines databases from about 10 separate observatories. This enables you to treat all these observatories as if they were just one giant database. Everything here is in the public domain: http://www.skyserver.org has everything you need to build your own Sky Server! The code itself is written in C# and ASP.NET.

Communication
Social computing is focused on building software that can improve the quality of interaction between people. Lili Cheng's team has been working on ways to enable people to identify their relationships. Personal Map is a piece of software that builds relationship mappings based on the interactions that I have with them. Having identified people with whom you have relationships, it's possible to map that onto things like file shares to understand which are the important items to those social groups. Wallop (http://mywallop.com) is a blog-style application that brings these concepts together to allow people to interact and create connections. Wallop allows you to collaborate on individual blogs or moblogs, uploading photos to other people's sites too. (One of my colleagues, Mike Platt, says this is similar to a bliki; that's a new term on me...)

Smart Personal Objects (SPOT) are a new class of device that have been incubating in MSR for the last three years. These are everyday devices whose core functionality is amplified and improved with the addition of software. SPOT devices include a tiny CLR running with < 1MB.

The University of Washington have been experimenting with collaborative teaching environments where teaching materials are recorded and annotated and available for on-demand streaming. MSR have also been working on the "Student Tablet PC" - including tools that provide specific support to the learning environment. MathPad^2 and Magic Paper II are examples of these applications.

  • How do I get invited to mywallop?
  • According to the website itself, you need to know someone else who's "in the club" right now in order to get in. As mentioned, this is primarily a research project today rather than a live service, and I believe has therefore been deliberately limited in terms of access. For what it's worth, I'm not "in the club" either. Sorry - it looks cool though, doesn't it!
  • Bliki - a combination of Blog and Wiki. Which almost sounds to me just like a regular wiki. What's the difference between the wiki and a blog? A blog is one person - a wiki is everyone. Am I missing something?
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