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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

    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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    Kinect for Windows SDK Beta Refresh Available

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    Kinect for Windows SDK beta refresh available for download

    Interest in the Kinect for Windows Software Development Kit (SDK) beta, released on June 16, 2011, has been strong, and we’re delighted to learn that so many developers and innovators who are experimenting with natural user interface (NUI) applications have taken advantage of the SDK to explore the potential of the Kinect sensor.

    In support of our commitment to encourage researchers and enthusiasts in their exploration of the exciting possibilities of the Kinect sensor, we have now released a refreshed version of the SDK. The community has provided us with a lot of good feedback, and this release addresses some of the top items you’ve told us about.

    Before summarizing the updates, let’s quickly recap the key features of the Kinect for Windows SDK beta. This non-commercial SDK beta enables human motion tracking, voice recognition, and depth sensing on PCs, enabling developers to create innovative natural user interface applications. The SDK includes drivers and rich APIs for raw sensor streams and natural user interfaces, as well as installation documents and resource materials.

    So, what’s in the refresh?

    • Driver enhancements: stability fixes to prevent crashes, including those that appear when a PC goes into sleep mode
    • Runtime enhancements: refinements to a number of APIs, improvements in time-stamping, and the removal of non-functional APIs to alleviate confusion (they will be reinserted if and when the functionality becomes available in future releases)

    The refresh also includes many improvements to the documentation, including clarifications and the deletion of information pertaining to non-functional components. Also, the SDK samples have been enhanced.

    If you’re an academic researcher or an enthusiast who wants to take advantage of the latest developments in natural user interface experimentation, we encourage you to learn more about and download the Kinect for Windows SDK beta refresh. We plan on releasing the next refresh of the Kinect for Windows SDK beta later this year (still with a non-commercial license).

    Let us know what you think—as this refresh demonstrates, we’re committed to using your feedback to make the best possible SDK!

    Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Confronting Global Grand Challenges

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    Microsoft Research Connections Vice President Tony HeyOn March 12 and 13, I had the privilege of joining with more than 450 leading thinkers drawn from around the world and across disciplines at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. Organized by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the summit brought together engineers, artists, economists, designers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers, all striving to achieve the cross-discipline and international cooperation needed to solve global problems.

    The Grand Challenges were organized around six themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology, and growth and resilience. The summit also included plenary addresses from Craig Venter, founder of J. Craig Venter Institute, who spoke about the promises and problems of creating synthetic life, and Bill Gates, co-founder and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed challenges in global health. Among the other luminaries present were IET President and tech entrepreneur Andy Hopper, who addressed the technology and growth theme, and Dame Ann Dowling, who spoke on directions in education. The presence of David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and sciences, underscored the significance of the summit as a vehicle for innovations and learning. An additional highlight was the surprise address from will.i.am—singer in the band, the Black Eyed Peas—who made a passionate plea for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for underprivileged children. Acknowledging that many of these youngsters aspire to a successful music career like his, he wants these children to realize that a much wider range of career opportunities is open to them.

    I served on the joint organizing committee for the event, representing the Royal Academy of Engineering. My best contribution was organizing the Student Day, which took place on the Monday before the beginning of the summit. Microsoft Research Connections sponsored this event that brought together 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students to collectively tackle the following six grand challenges:

    • Provide access to clean water
    • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
    • Advance health informatics
    • Secure cyberspace
    • Enhance virtual reality
    • Advance personalized learning

    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.
    Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.

    This event bore a resemblance to the popular US and UK television shows, The Apprentice, or The Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. The 60 participants divided up into teams based on which challenges they wished to tackle, ultimately combining two challenges: “securing cyberspace” and “enhancing virtual reality,” resulting in five teams. The teams went away and engaged in a variety of exercises to demonstrate the creativity and collaborative nature of their ideas. After debating their ideas with their peers, they worked the best into business proposals. At the end of the day, representatives from each of the five teams presented their business innovation, based on their team’s challenge, to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea. The team on health informatics won, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. I was extremely pleased to introduce the winning team as they addressed more than 400 distinguished invitees.

    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program.
    The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. (L to R): Nikhila Ravi (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Choe (MIT), Andrew Whyte (University of Bath),  Julie Shi (University of Washington), Michael Morley (IIT), Alison Gerren (University of Toledo) and Carolyn Damo (University of Toledo).

    Grappling with grand global challenges and encouraging the development of the next generation of problem solvers—it doesn’t get much better than that!

    Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections

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