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April, 2011

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.

April, 2011

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Software You Can See: Looking Back at the Paris Software Summit 2011

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    There is a saying dating back to the days of punched cards that "the software is in the holes"—and therefore invisible. At the recent Microsoft Research Software Summit in Paris, software was anything but invisible. It was all around us and manifest in the smartphones, gadgets, and light tables, and on the huge screens that circled the beautiful foyer of Microsoft France's Le Campus conference facility.

    The first change that struck us was the availability of the conference schedule on our Windows 7 smartphones, courtesy of Thomas Zimmermann and Christian Bird from Microsoft's Research in Software Engineering group, RiSE. With the touch of the phone screen, attendees could see what was next, in what room, as well as all the abstracts, bios, and pictures of the speakers. While not the first conference app developed for smartphones, it certainly had a touch of class and showed off the speed and ease of use of the Windows Phone 7 user interface.

     

    Nikolaj Bjorner, Chris Bird, and Thomas Zimmermann show off the Windows Phone 7.

    Nikolaj Bjorner, Chris Bird, and Thomas Zimmermann
    show off the Windows Phone 7.

    While looking at their phones, attendees were drawn to the other apps that were ready for download, as featured on the post-summit website. One of these, TouchStudio, was featured in a keynote address by Wolfram Schulte. In a slick demo, Nikolai Tillmann showed how his team had overcome “the tyranny of the fingertip” by shifting the process of programming on a smartphone from typing programs letter-for-letter to choosing from options by tapping on the screen—once again using the layout and design of Windows Phone 7 to the fullest. On Friday afternoon, there was a workshop on mobile computing where we were all encouraged to write programs in TouchStudio. Because it was so easy and short, I am taking the unusual step of including my first TouchStudio program in this blog. 

    TouchStudio code example

    TouchStudio code example

    Taking a photo is actually a very complex operation and would take several pages of C# code to get right. Here we have it in one line. The endless possibilities for scientists, hobbyists, students, and children to access the power of the phone through TouchStudio were not lost on us seasoned academics in the audience.

    Another very visible piece of software was on display in .NET Gadgeteer, a unique mix of programming and a kit of hardware modules. Gadgeteer enables users to quickly assemble useful, fun gadgets that have the ability to display images, play back sounds, take pictures, sense the environment, and communicate with other devices. It was great fun to watch computer scientists, designers, and even psychologists furiously and enthusiastically building gadgets.

    Of course, a summit is not all about coding and listening to talks. The 230 academics, industrialists, and researchers thoroughly enjoyed the long breaks over delicious French food, discussing the demos on display and the sessions they had attended.

    One of the sessions that attracted a standing-room-only crowd focused on Verified Software. There, Cambridge lab researchers, including Tony Hoare, teamed up with Thomas Santen from the European Microsoft Innovation Center (EMIC) and industry representative from nearby Europe and far-away Australia. Together, they presented the latest results in software verification for the all-important embedded software industry. We got a rare glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes before software is put into devices in cars, trains, and planes.

    There was so much more, but fortunately, we have the websites to go back to and can review the program and download the software. All the talks and slides will also soon be posted, and what a feast that will be for those who attended and those who could not.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Microsoft Biology Foundation 2.0 Beta 1 Release and Coding Contest

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    I am pleased to announce the release of Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF) 2.0 beta 1, an open-source Microsoft .NET library and application programming interface for bioinformatics research. This beta provides the first significant update since MBF 1.0. Notable improvements include:

    • Increased capacity for de novo assembly of larger and more complex species than V1
    • New comparative assembly functions for characteristic genetic diversity within or between species
    • Core object model improvements for a smaller memory footprint and increased parallel processing

     

    MBF 2.0 beta 1 has parity with all MBF 1.0 tools and features plus updated documentation.

    Microsoft Biology Foundation toolYour feedback on MBF 1.0 was extremely supportive and is helping us develop MBF 2.0. We are asking you once again to download the beta and send us your feedback. Just download and try the MBF 2.0 beta 1. Send us your feedback or report bugs through our discussion forum or issue tracker.

    To make it a little more interesting, we're giving away an Xbox 360 4GB console with Kinect bundle to one talented developer in our Microsoft Biology Foundation Coding Contest.

    To Enter the Contest

    • Visit the MBF Coding Contest site and read the complete rules.
    • Use our MBF object model, parsers, algorithms, and web connectors to build an application that helps researchers solve problems in the fields of bioinformatics and genomics.
    • Submit your MBF 2.0 beta 1-based application to us between today and July 15, 2011, and you’ll be entered to win!

    The winning entry will be selected by a panel of judges.

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    —Rick Benge, Community Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Celebrating an Out-of-This-World Earth Day

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    Earth Day - How will you celebrate your environment?

    It may seem like an unlikely way to celebrate Earth Day, but this year, students at the University of Washington (UW) can mark the occasion with an exhilarating virtual trip away from our small blue planet, thanks to a unique collaboration between Microsoft Research Redmond and the UW Planetarium 

    By incorporating digital images streamed from Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope (WWT), a computer program that brings together imagery from the world's best ground- and space-based telescopes, the UW Planetarium has gone beyond the typical static display of the heavens. WWT provides students with detailed views of the night sky through an incredible 3-D experience.

    In the past, the UW Planetarium used a star-ball to project an image of the night sky on the building's domed ceiling. This is the tried-and-true method of showing the constellations and brighter stars, but it lacks the ability of zooming into details of objects like nebulae and seeing the birth of new stars. Couple that with the excitement of 3-D—a feeling that you're actually flying through the solar system—and you take student engagement to a whole new level.

    The new projection system was a result of a two-year collaboration and cost approximately US$30,000—a bargain compared to equipping a planetarium with standard digital technology, which involves the installation of dedicated digital projection systems and can run half a million dollars or more. This low-cost system—created jointly by the UW Department of Astronomy and Microsoft researchers (especially WWT developer Jonathan Fay)—uses six modified home-theater projectors, each of which projects a portion of the digital image onto the dome. Software enables the perfect alignment of the six images and a resolution of 8 million pixels.

    The UW planetarium also allows attendees to see the Terapixel image—the largest and clearest image of the night sky ever produced—in all its glory. Not only is the UW's digital planetarium a boon to students, it also serves as a model for inexpensive digitization of planetariums around the world. While you're waiting for digital projection to reach an institution near you, you can fire up your PC and go to the WorldWide Telescope site. There you can zoom among the stars, albeit on a much smaller (and flatter) screen. Or, if you happen to be in Seattle, check out the UW Planetarium shows that are open to the general public and get lost in the stars.

    Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment at Microsoft Research Connections

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