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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.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Community empowerment and growing more women in tech


    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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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Young talent gathers at Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum


    The past decade has witnessed an incredible boom in Chinese academic research—a boom fueled in large measure by talented young researchers. Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting the Joint PhD Program, in which Microsoft Research Asia collaborates with leading Chinese universities to discover and foster outstanding research talent. From 1998 to 2013, more than 150 Chinese students have participated in this program. 

     Some of the young researchers who gathered for the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum
    Some of the young researchers who gathered for the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum

    “How about hosting a forum to get all these young talents together and provide them an opportunity to inspire each other?” I felt quite excited when this idea came up during a Joint PhD Program committee meeting. After a month of preparation, the first Microsoft Research Asia PhD Forum was held on December 12, 2013. It was a rousing success, bringing together not only the program’s PhD students but also more than 60 additional doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, Beihang University, and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    This PhD forum provided a platform for direct communication among top doctoral students. As one participant observed, it gave the young researchers a unique opportunity “to exchange ideas with fellows who have similar research experiences, which is very helpful and distinctive.”

    In addition to this overall sense of camaraderie and mutual inspiration, the forum featured many impressive sessions. Yu Zheng, a lead researcher at Microsoft Research Asia and a renowned expert on the burgeoning field of urban computing, gave an opening keynote that discussed how city problems could be addressed by using big data. This speech, from a researcher who was named one of world’s top innovators under 35 by MIT Technology Review, was an inspirational event, and many students clearly viewed Dr. Zheng as a role model. Xiaohui Wang, a PhD student from Tsinghua University, told us with enthusiasm, “I was inspired by Yu Zheng’s talk. It was great to learn how top researchers at Microsoft Research Asia have advanced their research progress.”

    Zhen Cui, left, and Dong Chen discussed their work on face recognition during the oral session.
    Zhen Cui, left, and Dong Chen discussed their work on face recognition during the
    oral session.

    During the oral session, 12 PhD students shared their published research findings. Particularly notable was the dialogue between Dong Chen, a Microsoft Research Asia Joint-PhD student, and Zhen Cui, a PhD candidate from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They focused on face recognition, and both of their papers had been accepted by 2013 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition. “Dong’s work on face verification is amazing. I am very happy and honored to attend this forum with such excellent peers, and I’ve benefited greatly from my interactions here with Dong and other students,” said Zhen Cui.

    During the forum, 16 PhD students presented their work with posters and demos. Pictured here are the two students who were awarded the Best Poster Prize.
    During the forum, 16 PhD students presented their work with posters and demos. Pictured here are the two students who were awarded the Best Poster Prize.

    During the panel session, four participants engaged in a spirited talk on how to achieve a better PhD career. They made me think about my own professional life, so interesting and meaningful were their observations. Their discussion on relationships with mentors impressed me the most. “Mentors are quite different from each other. As a PhD student, it is quite important to know your mentor’s style first, and then by working together with him, you will grow and be independent in research work,” said Shiguang Shan, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    A capacity crowd listened raptly during the panel discussion, How to Achieve a Better PhD Career.
    A capacity crowd listened raptly during the panel discussion, How to Achieve a Better
    PhD Career.

    As I reflect on the academic achievements and innovative spirit of these young students, I feel extremely satisfied and honored to have organized this forum. Although it lasted only one day, I believe the forum will be meaningful in the development of these promising young researchers.

    With the rapid development of Chinese research activities, I am convinced that the full potential of young talent is yet to be discovered. I sincerely hope that next year, more students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China will join us, and that the graduates of the Joint PhD Program will continue to make significant contributions to research.

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Lab of Things keeps growing


    Lab of Things adds features and deploymentsIn my previous blogs, I talked about the Lab of Things (LoT), which is a flexible platform for conducting experimental research using connected devices in homes and beyond. Since LoT’s beta release in July 2013, we have made a lot of progress on two fronts. First, we’ve been busily extending and perfecting various features of LoT; second, we’ve been working closely with academic partners to help them adopt and deploy LoT for their research.

    Right from the inception of the project, we have been working closely with our academic collaborators to understand better the needs of such a platform. One of the key requirements was to be able to support both off-the-shelf and custom devices. Today, LoT supports a host of off-the-shelf devices, including Z-Wave switches and multisensors, the Philips Hue light bridge, the Kinect for Windows sensor, and the Envi energy sensor. The driver model is extensible and adding a new device involves learning design patterns from the existing drivers (which are released in source form) and writing new ones. For developing custom devices and sensors, LoT now supports robust drivers for .NET Gadgeteer.

    We have made significant progress toward making HomeOS (the client-side component of LoT) more robust and extensible. Meanwhile, on the cloud-services side, LoT now includes a management portal that allows near real-time monitoring of the status of home hubs and enables researchers to monitor deployments separately for each study. The user interface of applications running in each home hub are now available securely from anywhere by using any device with a modern web browser.

    As part of the Lab of Things, we have a system for the efficient storage and sharing of data across applications running on LoT. This storage system offers the abstraction of a stream of time-tag-value records, with arbitrary, application-defined tags, and it supports efficient querying based on time or tags. The Lab of Things file system uses cloud storage as a seamless extension of local storage. It builds an index on the data stream and organizes the data into chunks of multiple records, which enables efficient compression, encryption, storage, and transfer of data.

    In the following video, Ratul Mahajan, a Microsoft researcher working on the project, talks about the motivation of the project and current capabilities. Subsequently, AJ Brush, another Microsoft researcher working on this project, gives a demo of the LoT client-side set up using various devices.

    In addition, we have been working with a number of academic researchers and students to enable them to adopt the Lab of Things and use it to deploy their experiments. A case in point is the ongoing work at University College London, where a dedicated team of students developed an analytics engine for the Lab of Things. The source code of the analytics engine is available on CodePlex to use and extend.

    Professor Affan Syed and his students at FAST-NUCES, Pakistan, are using the Lab of Things to develop a system to optimize and control the use of electrical power in homes to help address the acute shortage of energy in that country. The team is busy scaling up the project to deploy in a large number of homes with the goal to understand energy usage and optimization goals in a wider cross section of society. This video demonstrates the system.

    Not only for research projects, the Lab of Things is also being used for teaching. Professor Nilanjan Banerjee from University of Maryland at Baltimore County is offering a Lab of Things-based graduate-level course on Systems for Smart Home Automation, in which students will study the challenges in smart home automation systems and use the Lab of Things to build software systems for smart home automation.

    The Lab of Things website lists additional LoT projects that the academic community is implementing. See the academic projects page.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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