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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.

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    Presenting the History of Everything

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    ChronoZoom: an infinite canvas in time

    Today, March 14—Einstein’s birthday no less—marks the release of the beta version of an incredible new tool for the study of history: ChronoZoom. This powerful open-source tool, a joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, will be unveiled at the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) Conference and is available for download.

    What, you might ask, is so wonderful about ChronoZoom? After all, history resources abound. There are thousands of digital repositories, collections, libraries, and websites full of images, videos, documents, facts, and figures—not to mention the wealth of content squirreled away in private offices, personal computers, and university servers. But the sheer volume and disparate locations of these resources confound researchers, educators, and students, who spend untold hours searching this information, seeking to better understand history and its lessons for our future. What if we had a tool that could bring all these resources together?

    Moreover, despite increasing collaboration, the sciences and humanities are still largely taught and researched in silos. For example, when I took an East Asian Studies course in college, I learned what was happening in China in the 1400s, but not what was going on in the Middle East or Africa or Latin America, or what was taking place in the scientific realms of physics and chemistry. If we brought these worlds together, would we ask different questions? Would we arrive at new understandings of the past, resulting in different innovations and insights today?

    Such are the questions we hope to answer with ChronoZoom, which makes time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources, including videos, text, charts, schematics, images, articles, and other multimedia content. ChronoZoom thus serves as a "master timeline," tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and it aspires to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. In the spirit of “make no small plans,” ChronoZoom seeks to unify all knowledge of the past and to make this information easy to understand.

    In so doing, ChronoZoom emerges as a potentially vital tool in the evolving field of Big History, which attempts to unify the past—all of the past, from the beginning of time, some 13.7 billion years ago, to the present—through the four major regimes: cosmic history, Earth history, life history, and human history. Big History offers a broad understanding of how the past has unfolded, and it lets us explore the unifying characteristics that can bridge the intellectual chasm between the humanities and the sciences.

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    Today’s release of ChronoZoom is especially exciting for me because this tool was made by the academic community for the academic community. There’s no other timeline tool today that is supported by such a vast number of experts in different disciplines around the world. ChronoZoom has two communities that are led by two outstanding universities:

    • The content community, which provided the digital content to populate and share on ChronoZoom, led by Professor Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow at the University of California, Berkeley
    • The development community, which built the feature set to bring ChronoZoom to life, led by Dr. Sergey Berezin at Moscow State University.

    In addition, significant student involvement sets ChronoZoom apart. On the dev side, more than 80 percent of ChronoZoom is the work of undergraduate and graduate computer science students at Moscow State. The amazing application you can explore today was developed in three months by these students with support from Microsoft Research engineers. Similarly, 90 percent of the content in ChronoZoom was organized and developed by students at Cal Berkeley. 

    Today’s release is a call to action to the academic community to try ChronoZoom in their classrooms and then vote on its features and let us know what could make the tool even more useful. For academic experts and digital collection owners, it’s an opportunity to help determine the content that should be in ChronoZoom. For computer science institutions and developers around the world, it’s a call to join our open-source community and help us build the next set of features.

    ChronoZoom has a long history and has gone through different phases of development. In the spring of 2009, Roland Saekow had the good fortune of taking Professor Alvarez's Big History course. During the course, Professor Alvarez used a variety of tools, from log scales to multi-sheet paper timelines, to convey the vast time scales of Big History.

    Luckily, Saekow remembered a TED talk about a new computer zoom technology called Seadragon. He approached Professor Alvarez after class, and they started brainstorming about how a zoomable timeline would function. With the help of the Industry Alliances group on campus, they got in touch with Microsoft Research and Microsoft Live Labs, which helped produce the first prototype version of ChronoZoom.

    Today, with feedback from other Big History, humanities, and science professors around the world, we are focused on creating an all-new ChronoZoom that is a great educational tool for the classroom and research tool for academics. After creating the first version of ChronoZoom, we worked in collaboration with universities, professors, and students to make this tool easier to use in the classroom, but we definitely encourage feedback. This is why we are making the ChronoZoom beta version available to the community—hoping for significant feedback and collaboration to create a great tool that helps students, educators, and researchers really understand the history of everything.

    We’re pleased to announce that the ChronoZoom project is now part of the Outercurve Foundation’s Research Accelerators Gallery. The Outercurve Foundation, a non-profit, open-source foundation, provides software IP management and project development governance to 22 open-source projects. The foundation’s four galleries—the Research Accelerators, ASP.NET Open Source, Data, Languages and Systems Interoperability, and Innovators Galleries—support the collaborative development of software in open-source communities, yielding faster results and improved community development for organizations and research groups worldwide

    If you’re attending the NCCE Conference, I hope you’ll visit me today as I launch ChronoZoom beta in a training workshop for educators. And wherever you are, please try out the ChronoZoom beta in the weeks ahead, as we hope to get more than 500,000 users providing feedback over the next six months. If you want to help with content or development, please email us at chronozoomproject@outercurve.org.

    Zoom away!

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

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    Kinect Fusion Boosts Kinect for Windows SDK Update

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    On Monday, March 18, 2013, Microsoft rolled out the latest release of the Kinect for Windows software development kit (SDK). This represents the largest update to the technology since the SDK was first commercially released in February last year, and it includes the Kinect Fusion technology that originated in Microsoft Research.

    Kinect Fusion, an implementation of Microsoft Research’s 3-D surface reconstruction technology, can create highly accurate 3-D renderings of people and objects in real time.
    Kinect Fusion, an implementation of Microsoft Research’s 3-D surface reconstruction technology, can create highly accurate 3-D renderings of people and objects in real time.

    The new release has a number of features that will benefit the academic and research community:

    • Kinect Interactions – A built-in gesture recognizer, Kinect Interactions provides tools that enable the creation of intuitive, smooth, and polished applications that are based on the way people naturally move and gesture. These new tools should spur even more rapid development of Kinect for Windows-based natural user interface (NUI) applications that enable people to interact with their computers and devices through gestures and speech.
    • Kinect Fusion – A commercially-supported implementation of Microsoft Research’s 3-D surface reconstruction technology, Kinect Fusion merges multiple snapshots from the Kinect for Windows sensor to create accurate, full, 3-D renderings of people and objects affordably and in real time. Developers and researchers have been eagerly anticipating the availability of this technology since it was first shown at the ACM SIGGRAPH research conference in August 2011.
    • New OpenCV and MATLAB samples – These graphics and math tools, frequently used in academic research and advanced application development, should be a welcome addition and useful resource for those getting started with Kinect for Windows.

    Another helpful development: earlier this month, Kinect for Windows announced broader availability of academic pricing through Microsoft Authorized Educational Resellers (AERs). Most of these resellers can now offer academic pricing directly to educational institutions; academic researchers; and students, faculty, and staff of public or private K-12 schools, vocational schools, junior colleges, colleges, universities, and scientific or technical institutions. Academic pricing on the Kinect for Windows sensor is currently available through AERs in the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong SAR.
     
    We eagerly look forward to a seeing what the academic community does with the new features!

    Stewart Tansley, Director, Microsoft Research Connections
    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

     

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    From Smartphone to Smart Home: Automating the Modern Home

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    For baby boomers who grew up watching The Jetsons, the idea of the fully automated home was the futuristic stuff of cartoons. Today, the technology is available to make a Jetsonesque home a reality, by using inexpensive network devices that remotely control locks, lights, thermostats, cameras, and motion sensors. In theory, we should be able to monitor our home security cameras remotely from a smartphone or customize the climate of each room based on occupancy patterns. In practice, however, the high overhead of managing and extending home automation technology has restricted such “smart home” scenarios to expert hobbyists, who enjoy grappling with the technical challenges, and the wealthy, who can hire someone to handle the tech chores.

    HomeMaestro: a platform that helps end users program their home appliances

    To simplify the management and development of smart-home applications, Microsoft Research has developed HomeOS. When coupled with smartphones and cloud services (by using Project Hawaii and Windows Azure), HomeOS makes the smart home a reality for the rest of us. Unlike past home technology models, which rely either on an “appliance abstraction,” in which a closed, monolithic system supports a fixed set of tasks over a fixed set of devices, or a “network of devices abstraction,” in which a decentralized collection of devices relies on interoperability protocols, our HomeOS provides users and developers with a PC-like abstraction. It presents network devices as peripherals, enables cross-device tasks via applications, and gives users a management interface that is designed for the home environment. By so doing, the HomeOS overcomes the extensibility limitations of the appliance model and the manageability hassles of the network of devices model. At the same time, it brings the “app store” to the home environment, allowing users to extend the functionality of their home by downloading applications.

    To date, the HomeOS research prototype has been running in more than a dozen homes. We’ve also made it freely available to academic institutions for teaching and research purposes. Nearly 50 students, across several institutions, have already built some exciting applications for HomeOS. 

    For example, HomeMaestro from the MIT Media Lab shows the power of the HomeOS approach. HomeMaestro is a platform for intuitively defining home appliance behavior. The key concept in HomeMaestro is a repository of rules defined by other users, which can be mashed into interesting scenarios. These rules could be simple if-then statements, such as “if my bedroom window is open, then switch off the heater.” The rules can be defined on Windows Phone 7 and uploaded to the cloud (Project Hawaii web services and Windows Azure) for later use and sharing.

    In another example, students at the University of Washington recently used HomeOS with Windows Phone 7 and cloud services (from Project Hawaii) to create a door-monitoring system and networked alarm, and to control various home devices using the Kinect sensor.

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    Student demos of HomeOS applications

    You can check out some potential applications of the HomeOS in these student demos. A paper describing HomeOS will be presented at the 9th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI '12), which runs from April 25 to 27, 2012, in San Jose, California.

    With HomeOS, we feel we’re on the way toward that Jetson home—now, if only we could make George Jetson’s nine-hour workweek a reality!

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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