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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 5, 2008 at 3:17 PM

Microsoft’s ad research, and a 50-in. vertical Surface PC

It was only a prototype, but the vertical Surface at Microsoft’s advertising research “Demo Fest” today was pretty distracting.

The third annual event showed a handful of projects developed by adCenter Labs, a research group that works in Redmond, Shanghai and Cambridge, Mass. (and perhaps soon, Sunnyvale, Calif.).

Microsoft invited employees and the press, and it will be showing some of the same stuff to Web developers at its Mix conference next month and its advertiser summit this summer.

Researchers refused to answer questions about Yahoo and wouldn’t say much about when their work would emerge in products. But some of the things they showed last year are already in products.

It may not mean a lot, but the mix of projects at the event suggests (intentionally?) that Microsoft is putting a lot of effort into ad technology beyond search. It’s apparently working particularly hard on ways to place ads into video content.

Three years ago, 80 percent of the projects displayed related to search. Last year about 70 percent were search-related, and this year only half involved search, according James Colborn, adCenter director.

Several projects I saw seemed geared toward ad agencies, which could use the tools to automate the way ads are inserted into video content.

New this year was ad-serving technology for the Surface, the Microsoft-developed, touch-controlled PC that’s initially being sold in a tabletop form for casinos, hotels and retailers.

The vertical model used at today’s event was only a prototype for showing ad research, but it showed how the system could evolve beyond the tabletop.

The prototype used a cheap, replaceable whiteboard as a screen, instead of the expensive, durable glass used on the table versions.

Multitouch capabilities were added with two cork-sized sensors mounted at the top corners of the whiteboard, and a camera that hung over the top of the frame. The camera connected to a PC that was mounted above the board.

The idea, according to Li Li, adCenter Labs group manager, is that the vertical surface could be installed in high-traffic public areas such as convention centers, shopping malls and airports. Vandalism is likely, so the system uses an easily replaceable display surface.

But the point of the demonstration was the ad placement technology, not the Surface. Li Li’s group was showing how ads can inserted into puzzles, maps and other applications running on a Surface in a public area.

In one demonstration, the system was playing several videos in small windows arranged on one side of the panel. Passersby are invited to play a quick puzzle game, in which one of the videos =- featuring a Chevy — is split into pieces and rearranged by touching the screen and moving pieces around. Portions of the video keep playing on each piece.

Li Li said time spent playing the game increases the user’s engagement with the advertisement.

I wasn’t paying any attention to the Chevy, though, because I was imagining all the cool things I could do with a 50-in. Surface computer in my living room.

I didn’t take a photo of the Surface, but here’s a screen shot from one of the demos — the front-end for a system that places ads into videos intelligently, so the logos or other ad material doesn’t obscure action happening in the video:




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