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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

    Cloud Power in Europe

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    There are clouds on the horizon in Brussels, and European technology leaders couldn't be happier. On March 22, Microsoft inaugurated its new Cloud and Interoperability Center (CIC) in the Belgian capital—the heart of the European Union's (EU) institutions—underscoring Microsoft's and the EU's commitment to the potential of cloud-computing innovation and growth across Europe. With a mission of promoting interoperability and collaboration to make the most of information technology, the CIC will showcase the latest cloud solutions in such areas as education, health, and e-government; it will also foster advanced research projects on cloud computing and interoperability. The CIC will provide much needed support for public-sector organizations and small and midsized businesses as they explore and adopt cloud technology and create their own innovative solutions.

    Uli Pinsdorf, program manager in security team, MSR with Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission

    Uli Pinsdorf, program manager in the security team, Microsoft Research, with Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission 

    By offering a platform to experience cloud technology and share resources and knowledge, the CIC will act as both an incubator and catalyst for cloud computing in Europe. The CIC will host up to 15 cloud-based solutions, such as the Fire Risk Prevention system (previously called the Virtual Fire system) demo. Fire Risk Prevention demonstrates a cloud-based tool that uses analyses of metrological data, vegetation, and topographic models to predict wildfire risks anywhere on the Greek island of Lesvos. This application was initiated by the University of Aegean in cooperation with Microsoft Research Connections Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) and further developed by the European Microsoft Innovation Center (EMIC). Fire Risk Prevention is supported by VENUS-C, a collaboration that was established by Microsoft Research Connections EMEA and co-funded by the European Commission that involves scientific and technical partners across Europe. We anticipate that several other applications soon will be demonstrated on the VENUS-C platform, resulting from the conclusion of an open call that elicited more than 60 proposals.

    Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission that is responsible for the EU Digital Agenda, gave the keynote speech at the CIC opening. Her address discussed the European Cloud Computing Strategy and the importance of such ventures as the CIC. She also showed a series of interactive demos, including the impressive Fire Risk Prevention system.

    During a transatlantic videoconference, Kroes congratulated Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on the opening of the CIC and welcomed the focus on interoperability and standards. "This gives me confidence that Microsoft and other cloud providers and users will contribute constructively to my work on a European cloud-computing strategy. All together we can tackle the challenges we face today and get the most out of this technology," observed Kroes.

    Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, also spoke at the CIC opening. Courtois stressed Microsoft's belief "that there's never been a more important time to invest in accelerating cloud adoption," and highlighted the investment in the opening of the Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) in Brussels. He spoke about the value of cloud computing for small and midsized businesses, including startups, where it can provide enterprise-level computing power without prohibitive infrastructure investments. In the same vein, Courtois noted how cloud computing can drive productivity improvements and cost savings that will help budget-constrained governments address such societal challenges as health, education, research, and the environment.

    All in all, it was a grand celebration of a bright day—incongruously brought on by clouds!

    Fabrizio Gagliardi, Director, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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    Windows 7 Phones Home

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    ASTRA 7 flight train being prepared for launchThese days, much is made of applications that run in the metaphorical cloud.  Well, here's an example of hardware and software that soared through the clouds, both real and metaphorical.  On March 4, the ASTRA 7, a stratospheric gas balloon carrying a mobile phone running the Windows Phone 7 operating system, was launched from the Cotswolds in west-central England.  The hardy phone made its way through the real clouds and into the stratosphere, recording and sending location data that was processed through the virtual cloud of Windows Azure. Part of the University of Southampton's ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) initiative, the launch was designed to test the capabilities of the Windows 7 mobile computing platform in capturing, analyzing, and transmitting location data from unmanned vehicles in the upper atmosphere.

    The phone's logger application included a "hunter mode," which allowed ASTRA staff on the ground to track the payload during its flight, thus enabling its recovery. The application uses Bing Maps to display the location of the balloon payload, the hunter's phone, the locations of the other hunters, as well as the predicted landing location, which was constantly re-computed in the cloud by Windows Azure as new location reports beamed down from the on-board phone.

    Windows Phone 7 at 18,237 meters aboth South Wales

    The ASTRA 7 reached a maximum altitude of 18,237 meters during a flight of 1 hour 16 minutes, soaring deep into the stratosphere, where the ambient pressure was less than 10 percent of its sea level value and the temperature dropped to -58 C. The maximum speed reached by ASTRA 7 was approximately 145 kilometers per hour, logged at an altitude of 10.1 kilometers as the balloon traversed the jet stream. ASTRA 7 landed about 75 kilometers downrange—very close to the pre-flight prediction based on the ASTRA balloon flight simulation model. ASTRA 7 also took more than 1,200 photos during its flight, a small selection of which are included in this blog.

    The phone and the rest of the equipment were protected by a high-grade cell-foam enclosure to ensure the reliable operation of the on-board electronics in the extreme environmental conditions of the upper atmosphere.  The enclosure was manufactured by using a computer-controlled laser cutter at the university's Engineering Design and Manufacturing Centre. As part of the payload bay's development process, the ASTRA team tested the foam enclosure in a vacuum chamber to ensure that its mechanical properties would be satisfactory in the extremely low-pressure environment of the stratosphere.

    On March 8, ASTRA launched a longer flight to see how the technology would cope with more prolonged exposure to stratospheric conditions. The payload, consisting of a Windows Phone 7, battery, and camera, remained airborne for approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, covering about 110 kilometers in the process.

    ASTRA scientists are extremely pleased with the performance of the Windows 7 package, which fits perfectly with the initiative's goal of developing and testing platforms capable of delivering scientific instruments via unmanned vehicles to altitudes ranging from the planetary boundary layer to the upper stratosphere. Dr. András Sóbester, leader of the ASTRA initiative, summed it up nicely: "We are excited that this constitutes a unique opportunity to collect important data that will give new insight into how the upper atmosphere affects Earth's climate and environment, using affordable technology."

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     —Geoff Hughes, Academic Strategy Advisor, Microsoft UK Developer Platform Evangelism

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    WorldWide Telescope Revolutionizes Astronomy 101

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    Recently, when I delivered my presentation, The Revolution in Astronomy Curricula Introduced by WorldWide Telescope (WWT), at INTED2011, I heard frequent comments from the audience that the variety of potential educational uses for WWT is "fascinating." The presentation was made possible by a collaboration between the Microsoft Research Connections' WorldWide Telescope group, the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), and the Central China Normal University (CCNU). The successful reception of WWT at INTED2011 reminded me of all the wonderful things that WWT has enabled in China and throughout the world.

    To develop and grow a user community successfully, it is important to start by training the trainers. Focused on creating science educators for universities and high schools, CCNU is one of the most influential universities in education and pedagogy research in China. For more than two years, Microsoft Research Connections' WWT group and NAOC have been working with CCNU to integrate WWT into the astronomy research and education curriculum at CCNU. The development and outcome are reported in the papers, "Science Data Based Astronomy Education" and "The Revolution in Astronomy Curricula Introduced by WorldWide Telescope (WWT)" (upcoming at INTD2011 Publications).

    Educators from more than 40 institutes in China attended the first WWT Teachers’ Training Workshop, August 1–3, 2010, Beijing, China.

    Educators from more than 40 institutes in China attended the first WWT Teachers’ Training Workshop, August 1–3, 2010, Beijing, China.

    In addition to the efforts at CCNU, the WWT Teachers' Training Workshop 2010 was conducted jointly by CCNU, NAOC, and Microsoft Research in August 2010. Due to popular demand, we will jointly host the WWT Teachers' Training Workshop 2011 in China from July 21 to 24, 2011. The strategy to "train the trainers" has made the WWT user community grow exponentially in China.

    The success at CCNU is just one example of how the WorldWide Telescope program helps Microsoft Research Connections engage with enthusiastic scientists worldwide. This particular long-term collaboration is succeeding beyond our original expectations for everyone involved in the project.

    For example:

    • Due to her innovative work with WWT, Dr. Cuilan Qiao (our principle investigator at CCNU), received her tenured position last year and is changing the education paradigm by integrating digital information technologies with the science curricula.
    • As a result of the contributions he has made to science outreach by using WWT during the last three years, Dr. Chenzhou Cui at NAOC has been assigned by the NAOC to be in charge of developing the Science Outreach Plan for the observatory's twelfth Five-Year Plan. This is an extraordinary honor for a young Chinese scientist.
    • I have been invited by to become an honorary professor at CCNU, and I will accept this honor on behalf of all of us at Microsoft Research.

    Next month, I will be in Moscow to co-host the workshop, WWT for Gagarin Celebration and Beyond, with Microsoft Russia and Moscow State University. I'm looking forward to another experience of using WWT to help empower the research and academic communities in the advancement of science and education.

    Note: It would be an omission to overlook the substantial impression that WWT has made in the astronomy and science education communities in the United States as well. Look for a future blog in which my team members and I commemorate the three-year anniversary of the WorldWide Telescope.

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     —Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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