Microsoft Techfest shows near and distant future


Microsoft Research showed off a slice of Techfest on Tuesday, a science fair on steroids showcasing what the company’s hive of scientists are developing.

The projects ranged from developments a few years out to work that’s on the bleeding edge — 3-D animated talking heads and a 3-D display showing different broadcasts to two people looking at the same screen.

Tuesday’s show focused on natural user interface, now seen in the Xbox Kinect motion sensor, and predictive computing — software that anticipates what you want and does it for you.

Microsoft showed some of the work Tuesday to a few hundred partners and customers, about 10 percent of what it will show to Microsoft this week.

Techfest will showcase 150 projects, and the company expects 5,000 to 7,000 workers to attend.

It’s part show and tell for the researchers to see if product developers might be interested in adding the conceptual technology to future products.

Microsoft spends more than $9 billion a year on research and development, more than the total federal funding for the National Science Foundation last year.

Researchers hope Techfest will stimulate the creative juices at Microsoft and spread the seeds of broad concepts shown at the event.

“One form of tech transfer is when the developer says, ‘I want this,’ ” said Peter Lee, managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond.

“The other part of technology transfer is [product] developers thinking about what does natural-user interface mean? What does computer interaction mean? How does a system get smarter?”

Building on the success of Kinect, a motion sensor that has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar business since November, Microsoft showed off several projects using 3-D interaction.

Here are some examples:

3-D talking head. Software can animate a 3-D photo of a person based on 2-D video of the person talking. It was able to make the image speak, get angry and look surprised or fearful. The image had no hair — researchers are still wrestling with how to imitate real hair. This could be the next form of Avatar Kinect, the Kinect feature coming that lets your Xbox Avatar — a cartoon version of a player — interact with other players’ avatars via Xbox Live.

MirageBlock. The software, combined with a 3-D projector and a Kinect camera, captures an object image and projects it in 3-D on ordinary poster board. People can move the virtual object around with their hands.

Virtual Window. The Applied Sciences Group showed a few pieces of 3-D display technology the team hopes to combine into a virtual window between two people in different parts of the globe seeing and interacting with each other through a display screen. One piece was a flat lens called a wedge optic that was both a camera and a display.

Another was a glasses-free 3-D display screen combined with a Kinect sensor to track eye movement.

Another piece was a single screen that could broadcast two different images to people sitting side by side.

The ability of software to predict what you want was also a common theme to Techfest. Lee called it “COYB” or “computing on your behalf.”

Here are some examples of predictive computing Microsoft showed:

Automatic home heating. In one demo, Microsoft showed a thermostat and software that automatically turn on your home’s heating system before you get home, based on a history of the time you leave and return home each day. The sensors keep track of comings and goings with a keychain sensor.

ShadowDraw. A sketching application could make amateur drawers better artists by offering recommendations for future drawing strokes based on what the sketcher starts to draw. It offers suggestions for eyes, for instance, if you begin drawing the outline of a face.


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