Microsoft Research showed off several interesting projects at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles yesterday. I wrote about three of the projects in today’s paper: SecondLight; a data center sensor network; and Boku, a visual programming language for kids.
The company also announced a major upgrade to its very cool WorldWide Telescope. And today, the Washington Secretary of State’s Digital Archives said it was using a new audio-search technology from Microsoft Research aimed at providing better access to thousands of hours of archived government hearings. Read on for more details.
WorldWide Telescope: This free application, opened to the public in May, allows people to navigate an enormous database of images of the night sky and deep space from the world’s best observatories.
Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid said the WWT, with more than 1.5 million active users, is accelerating the pace of discovery in astronomy.
“Amateurs have found things in the sky that professional astronomers were not able to do so simply because they have access to that database,” he said.
Yesterday, Microsoft announced a new version, the Equinox Beta release. Curtis Wong, the project’s leader, gave a video demo of the new features, including a new three-dimensional view of the Solar System and the local group within the Milky Way. You can virtually travel to the planets and can see their orbital locations. You can also see your location on Earth at dawn as it emerges from dark to light and see how the tilt of the poles causes seasons.
The new version has more than double the amount of data, including 55 new panoramic images from the Apollo missions to the Moon, as well as the Mars Pathfinder, Opportunity and Phoenix landers.
You can get the application here.
Audio Search: Today, the Washington Secretary of State’s office announced a partnership with Microsoft Research to save recorded committee hearings and other public meetings, currently on cassette tapes, and in danger of being lost.
From the news release:
“Worried about the loss of information, the House of Representatives began a major project with the State Archives to convert their at-risk cassette tapes into electronic format in 2005. It made the files available to the Secretary of State’s Office and Microsoft Research, whose partnership is making it possible for the public to go to the Digital Archives Web site and search through words being said during the recorded hearings.”
It’s the first effort of its kind in the country. I’ll have more details to share shortly. Meanwhile, check out columnist Jerry Large’s take on the importance of archives from today’s paper. (Did you know it’s Washington State Archives Month? I didn’t.)
Finally, here is some additional info and links on the projects demonstrated yesterday:
SecondLight (not to be confused with Second Life): This prototype technology could some day push man-machine interaction a step further, off the screen and into three dimensions. Researchers started with Microsoft Surface, a touch-sensing computer that projects an image from below onto a semi-opaque glass tabletop. They added new technology to the Surface that can simultaneously project a second image onto another surface held above the tabletop, such as a piece of tracing paper or plastic.
It works because they used a “special liquid crystal material” for the tabletop that is normally “frosted or milky or diffuse in appearance.” When an electric charge is applied to the material, it becomes clear.
Steve Hodges, one of the researchers working on the SecondLight prototype, explains further:
“And if I project an image from below when it’s transparent, it’s just like a sheet of glass, the image passes straight through … .
“So what we do in SecondLight is we’re actually switching the display between these two states all the time. And, if, if you switch it quickly enough, as you can see, you can make it so that you don’t even see the switching. And that’s what we’re doing, this display is continually switching between those two states. And we synchronize the switching with the projection system and actually project two different images. Whenever the display is diffuse, we’re projecting the first image, and that’s the image that you see when you walk up and start using the unit.
“Whenever the display is in its transparent state, we’re projecting a second image, a different image, and that image processes straight through.”
It helps to see it in action, which you can do here (WMV).
Boku: The thousands of programmers in the audience yesterday seemed particularly interested in this visual programming language for kids. It’s probably too advanced for Microsoft Research head Rashid’s sons, who are already accomplished C# programmers.
“My wife took off a semester to home school the kids for a semester earlier this year,” Rashid said. “And among other things, she decided to teach them how to program … . But the reality is that not very many children have two parents that have taught computer science at the university level and have the time to teach these kids how to program.”
That’s where Boku comes in. And frankly, it looked like it would be a lot of fun for adults, too. With an Xbox 360 controller and some very basic logical concepts, you can easily build a game.
Matthew MacLaurin, who’s leading the Boku effort and gave a demonstration yesterday, is clearly stoked. His inspiration was the feeling he had as a 13-year-old, in 1980, writing his own games in the BASIC language on a Commodore PET.
“It was really this message in this moment that programming is actually a fun activity all on its own,” MacLaurin said. “I think a lot of us who came into it at that time, you know, really feeling like this is really an amazing new tool that I can use to express my own ideas.”
So what’s next for Boku? MacLaurin told the audience, “You’ll have a chance early next year to play with this for yourself.” I asked for more details about availability of the language and was told Microsoft is not “disclosing any specifics on Boku roadmap at this time.”
More details can be found here.