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January, 2014

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.

January, 2014

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Community empowerment and growing more women in tech

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    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Microsoft ResearchAlmost a year ago, I moved to Bend, a town in the Cascade Mountains of central Oregon. This former timber town (it was once home to two of the world’s largest pine mills) has reinvented itself as an outdoor recreation mecca and, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, the most entrepreneurial city in the United States. Today, Bend has more than 40 technology companies and one the highest densities of startups per capita in the nation[1]. For me, Bend offers the perfect mix of business and pleasure. I can hike, mountain bike, and ski to my heart’s content, and when duty calls, I’m only a 40-minute flight away from Seattle and Microsoft Research Redmond, and—more importantly—Bend’s broadband infrastructure allows me to connect to university and research centers throughout the world. What’s more, living in Bend has given me the opportunity to help build and shape the new computer science department at OSU-Cascades, a branch campus of Oregon State University.

    Having a community so diverse—with a traditional tourism industry and a new economy of startup technology companies—presents interesting opportunities. Having been actively involved with the Seattle-area’s TEDxSouthLakeUnionWomen last year, I naturally joined the TEDxBend community and quickly began investigating how to organize a salon series for my new team. A salon is a weekly, monthly, or quarterly event that keeps the community engaged in between larger TED events. I want to involve the creative, innovative Bend community, especially its women, in harnessing the passion of TEDx—not just to share great ideas but also to turn them into reality, by challenging people to confront and solve hard problems.

    TEDxBend, an independently organized TED eventI believe women are change agents: inventors and idea champions who can empower our community. During the first TEDxBendSalon, scheduled for January 29, 2014, our theme will be community empowerment. We’ll discuss how generations of women are transforming lives as well as entire communities in both the developing world and the developed world. We will stream previous TEDx talks that are relevant to community empowerment, and we’ll have four fantastic speakers focused on empowering women, veterans, entrepreneurs, and the community. My fellow Microsoft researcher, Jessa Lingel, will be one of the speakers.

    Given the importance of nurturing the next generation, 25 percent of the attendees will be students from Central Oregon Community College (COCC) and OSU-Cascades.  I want to introduce these students to the opportunities and leaders in their community. I’m especially eager for them to see women who are making a difference, and to show them the possibilities in their own backyard for using technology to change the world.

    I’m most excited about the idea-generation session, where first we will break into small groups to discuss challenges in central Oregon and how we can solve them, and then we will form teams and set a course of action for the year. Two of our 12 group leaders are students from OSU-Cascades and COCC. As the organizer of the salon, I will not be able to speak, but I will be leading a discussion group to ensure that one of our challenge areas focuses on how to increase the involvement of women in computing in central Oregon. I hope these ideas will come to fruition and that we’ll be able to share our success stories at TEDxBendWomen in December 2014.

    Our salon event sold out in five days, so it is too late to register, but please contact me if you would like to attend our next salon, which is slated for some time in July or August.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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    WorldWide Telescope celebrates new release

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    For the past five years, WorldWide Telescope (WWT) has served as an enriching resource in schools, museums, planetariums, and homes all over the world, inspiring students and astronomy enthusiasts with its detailed views of the heavens and interactive educational content. In celebration of its fifth anniversary, we are pleased to unveil the 5.0 release of WorldWide Telescope at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., this week (January 5–9, 2014).

    WorldWide Telescope 5.0 | Fifth Anniversary

    With this release, WWT offers powerful new features and includes access to exciting new data sets. The entire rendering system has been rewritten with cutting-edge technologies that give users a high-performance, cinematic experience. A new timeline editor provides tour authors with detailed control of camera motion, settings, and animation, allowing them to create sophisticated, smooth visual sequences with far less work. What’s more, WWT can now import and display highly detailed 3D models, and it even comes preloaded with several, including a high-fidelity representation of the International Space Station.

    Renderings of the planets and other bodies in the solar system also look better than ever, thanks to WWT 5.0’s new data sets. For instance, WWT 5.0 includes data about the moon from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. For Mars and Earth, new models that show how sunlight interacts with the planetary atmospheres provide realistic visualization effects, including simulated sunrises and sunsets. In WWT’s 3D mode, you can search for an Earth-based location and instantly fly to it.

    Charting the sky has never been easier with WWT 5.0’s collection of new and enhanced overlays that work in both the Sky- and 3D-universe modes. For easier control of these overlays, WWT 5.0 integrates with any MIDI compatible device. Now you can map a slider to fade in the new Hevelius constellation set—or show a galactic grid on the Milky Way with a touch of a button. This customization extends to the Xbox 360 Support and Custom buttons in the View tab.

    Another new feature, which has captured the attention of some of the world’s premiere planetariums, enables full-dome tour authoring for seamless displays on complex single- or multi-projector domes. Hundreds of thousands of people have experienced detailed displays of the universe, powered by WorldWide Telescope, at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, as well as at other venues around the world. Moreover, the educational value of WWT extends well beyond the planetarium. The WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors program supports formal educational programs that use WWT to teach students about the seasons, the planets, and the sky.

    The American Astronomical Society (AAS) debut of WorldWide Telescope 5.0 will include demos and informal talks for professional astronomers on the exhibit floor; in addition, several researchers and educators are giving lectures on WWT during the conference. Microsoft is a sponsor of the AAS Hack Day on January 9, featuring support and participation by WWT team members.

    You can learn more about WorldWide Telescope and download it for free at WorldWide Telescope.

    Jonathan Fay, Principal Software Architect, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Workshop highlights medical uses of Kinect technology

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    In keeping with the January ritual of reflecting on the past year’s accomplishments, we’re eager to tell you about a very special event that Microsoft Research Cambridge hosted in November: the Body Tracking in Healthcare workshop. This occasion celebrated the completion of a two-year collaboration between Microsoft Research Cambridge and Lancaster University, during which we explored the use of touchless interactions in surgical settings, allowing images to be viewed, controlled, and manipulated without physical contact via the Kinect for Windows sensor.

    Surgeons use Kinect for Windows-based system to view and manipulate X-rays and scans without physical contact.
    Surgeons use Kinect for Windows-based system to view and manipulate X-rays and scans without physical contact.

    The Kinect for Windows-based system, which has been widely covered in the popular press, enables surgeons to navigate through and manipulate X-rays and scans during operations, literally with a wave of the hands, without touching the non-sterile surface of a mouse or keyboard. It’s a prime example of the burgeoning field of natural user interface (NUI), which promises to change our relationship with today’s ubiquitous devices.

    The workshop brought together experts from academia and industry to discuss the use of Kinect for Windows in medicine—in applications that extend well beyond the operating room. Kinect’s body tracking abilities are already being harnessed for clinical assessments of, for example, children with motor disabilities. One talk at the workshop demonstrated a system in which youngsters with cerebral palsy play simple computer games while Kinect for Windows monitors their movements, providing data that physicians can use to assess the state of the disease.

    Other researchers are exploring ways to use Kinect for Windows to evaluate the damage caused by strokes and to create and monitor game-based rehabilitation exercises, many of which can be performed by stroke patients in their own homes. Still other presentations showed how Kinect can assist in diagnosing disorders of the brain and nervous system, including Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. We even saw how the Kinect camera and motion sensors can be utilized to compensate for patient movement during medical imaging—a boon to anyone who’s had to undergo repeat X-rays because he or she breathed during the first imaging.

    We hope to publish a comprehensive report on the projects shown at the workshop, either via a special issue of a journal or in a book. Meanwhile, a cover story in the January 2014 issue of Communications of the ACM features some of this work.

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA; Stewart Tansley, Director, Microsoft Research Connections; Abigail Sellen, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research Cambridge; and Kenton O’Hara, Researcher, Microsoft Research Cambridge

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