Inside Microsoft's UK Research Labs
17th Aug 2009 | 10:15
Six innovative ideas from the Cambridge facility
SecondLight, Wayve and the Whereabouts Clock
Dr Andrew Herbert is Managing Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, the UK arm of the company's worldwide research machine.
"We're a reservoir of technology; a pool of expertise and smart people. A lot of senior people at Microsoft started in Research and when the company faces challenges it often comes to us," explains Dr Herbert.
"There are no release dates or product roadmaps – it's about understanding and bringing that understanding back into the company."
The Microsoft Research project was founded after PC and microprocessor development dwindled in the mid-90s. The company invested $1bn into researching new innovations, which it hoped would allow the company to widen its horizons.
In 1999 the Cambridge arm was founded to tap into worldwide computing talent at the university, and every major area of the globe has its own research centre. Unlike many businesses around the world, Microsoft Research is centrally funded and doesn't report to any area of the business other than the executive. As such, it's not obliged to create anything that is financially viable, so it can focus on good technology, which in many cases goes on to be used on commercial products.
Despite the wide and often extremely technical nature of the work done by Microsoft Research, you can still see the fruits of its labour everywhere around you.
When the significance of the internet was realised in the 1990s, Microsoft Cambridge made a big commitment to helping the product groups with the initial implementation of IPv6 (a protocol developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force) in Windows.
It also did a lot of subsequent work in terms of architecture, implementation and standardization for the mobile extensions for IPv6. While the IPv6 innovation was of direct use to Microsoft, other research goes beyond computing.
A researcher in Cambridge caused reaction in the mathematical world by building an automated theorem proving system, which could check the validity of any mathematical problem; it then went on to develop a new proof of the Four Colour Theorem. The technology was later developed into the driver verification system used by Microsoft to promote PC stability and reliability.
Here are some of the technologies linked to the brains at Cambridge…
If you're a fan of hot new technology, you'll have seen Microsoft Surface, the tabletop multi-touch PC that is changing the way we think of computer interaction. Microsoft has added to this by creating SecondLight, touted by many as Surface 2 (it isn't), but it's actually a hardware update to the existing Surface PC that adds some new ideas.
The original Surface PC works with a projector underneath that displays the image on to the tabletop. However, SecondLight adds a second projector and uses some mind-blowing technology to pass the second image through the surface of the table, and on to anything held above without affecting the original image.
It does this by passing an electric current through the membrane of the Surface, which enables light to be passed through. SecondLight has huge implications for teaching and medical training but the technology is staying in the lab for now.
One of the main remits of Microsoft Research Cambridge is to create humanistic technology designed to help people stay in touch more easily, and Microsoft Wayve is one of the key products helping families to connect. Microsoft Wayve is a communicator for the whole family.
It enables people to leave handwritten notes for each other using the touchscreen interface, and send text messages and emails while away from home. Wayve has its own unique email and phone number so it's easy to communicate from most devices, and it's a great way for families to co-ordinate busy lives.
Wayve brings together everything from a mobile phone, digital photo frame and a whiteboard, and is one of the most entertaining ways to keep the family in touch.
In trials of UK households, messaging was found to be the most common use, with family members scribbling on photos, playing simple games and drawing pictures. Unlike many Microsoft Research projects, Wayve is destined for life in the outside world, so watch this space for an official release.
This concept product has little chance of seeing the light outside of the Cambridge research centre…
The Whereabouts Clock is a Harry Potter-style magic map panel that shows you where each member of the family is at any given time. Like the magic map in the film, locations are denoted by pictures of the family, floating between three places such as school, work and home.
Family members can text the clock where they are and what they're doing, so you can be assured that your children are safe, and that's it's time to put the dinner in the oven. The clock tracks the location of the family using automated text messages from the family's mobile phones. When a family member's phone is on, it automatically transmits SMS messages to the device when that person moves from one registered zone, such as home, into another registered zone, such as school.
Family members can also text the magic clock more specific information about their activities in each zone. So, for example, if a person is 'out' but shopping, they can text 'shopping' and the text appears under the person's picture on the clock.
TrueSkill, Somniloquy and forest analysis
TrueSkill is an opponent selection system that has been widely integrated into Xbox Live. The system works by rating performances, then selecting people of the same ability to play against. In order to determine the skill of all the players for a new game, the TrueSkill ranking system needs to determine the probability of the game's outcome.
This is done by averaging all possible performances weighted against the probability of the player's performance. The system then uses a host of complex formulae to give every player a numeric score based on their performances. When you join an Xbox Live game, you're matched with people with a similar score.
If you consistently improve, so does your score, and the pairing system adjusts. The TrueSkill system is operational in over 100 Xbox Live games, and has been instrumental in making Xbox Live one of the most popular online services in the world.
Somniloquy enables PCs to be woken up from sleep when receiving a Skype call, data request or network traffic. Currently, when a PC is in low power sleep mode, only the hardware can wake it, but this USB network card-with-a-twist can restart your machine.
At the moment, people who want to access their PC remotely, using the tools in Windows Vista or Windows 7, are thwarted if their PC goes into sleep mode; however, keeping it powered up wastes electricity. With Somniloquy, the PC would be allowed to sleep, and the USB device would automatically wake it when a remote request came through.
The prototype also has room for a built-in SD card. This means that in the future it could be designed to carry on downloads even when the PC is asleep, and then automatically sync the information when the PC is reawakened.
Understanding the growth of plant life is crucial to assessing the future of climate change, but the impact of tree populations on the environment remains a mystery. To solve this mystery, Microsoft Research has been involved in the first mapping and analysis of forests, based on 35 years of research.
It's hoped that scientists can start obtaining accurate information about the growth and decline of the world's trees, and therefore the impact of climate change. "Forests are made of trees, and trees are made of carbon," says Drew Purves, creator of the software.
"We know that forests are processing and storing large amounts of carbon. When trees grow, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in wood. But eventually every tree dies, and the wood rots or burns, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. There's a potential for a huge effect of that cycling and storage of carbon on the future of the earth's climate."
The research holds the promise to address fundamental scientific questions that could help conservationists and governmental officials decide how to protect the climate. "The way that forests process water and energy has immediate effects on everything from cloud formation to air temperatures to seasonal patterns of air flows," continues Purves. "This is an important part of modelling the global climate, along with things like ocean currents and atmospheric movements."
Five more technologies from Microsoft Research
The heritage of Microsoft's search engine, recently rebranded as Bing, owes a lot to Microsoft Research. The search engine perfectly underlines the goal of Microsoft Research to find new opportunities for Microsoft as a business. Much of the original build and a raft of last month's new features have come straight out of Cambridge.
Driver Verification Software
In 2006 a Microsoft Research employee solved an age-old mathematical problem using software that could test the validity of equations by running them forever. The seemingly pointless research was then taken on by Microsoft to verify that hardware drivers won't wreck your PC, and are safe to install.
STARS IN YOUR EYES:The Virtual Telescope brings the universe to your desktop
Google Earth – eat your heart out! Virtual Telescope enables users to travel the galaxy using photos from NASA's database and jump from planet to planet, learning about the wonders of the solar system as they go.
Last year, videos surfaced on the internet of new software from Microsoft Research that created automatic music to vocals. The product was made an instant hit due to its cheesy advertisement, which became a viral internet hit.
LA, LA, LA:So this is how 'talented artistes' come up with their big hits…
Research by the Natural Language Processing Group in the newly-founded Cambridge centre in 1997 led to the the first grammar checker in Microsoft Office 97, and has stayed there ever since. IPv6 Internet Protocol version 6 came about after the internet started running out of unique addresses for new pages. Microsoft Research designed the protocol, which is only now starting to take effect. Without it, internet growth could have stopped dead in its tracks.
First published in Windows: The Official Magazine Issue 33
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