[This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times March 6, 2013.]
From a smartphone app capable of capturing 3-D scans to interactive whiteboards to a browser-based program allowing users to build a predictive model in minutes, the preview Tuesday of Microsoft’s TechFest 2013 was full of cool stuff.
But the demos were more than just about cool. Taken together, they gave a broad yet cohesive view of three areas of the future that Microsoft is concentrating on:
• Natural user interface — meaning interacting with computing devices using touch, speech or gestures.
• Big data — synthesizing and making useful large amounts of information.
• Machine learning — the ability of computers to learn.
TechFest is the company’s annual science fair at which its advanced researchers from around the world demonstrate what they’re working on.
On Tuesday, a handful of the approximately 150 demonstrations were shown to some customers, partners and the media. On Wednesday and Thursday, thousands of Microsoft employees are expected to attend.
Microsoft employs some 850 Ph.D.-level researchers worldwide — about half in the U.S. — and spends about $9 billion a year on research and development.
That makes Microsoft the No. 1 computer science-research organization in the world, according to Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s chief research officer.
The company, though, has been criticized on whether it gets good return on its heavy R&D investment.
Rashid addressed the issue during his keynote address Tuesday morning in which he said Microsoft Research generates about a quarter of the company’s patents, that it provides “early warning” on new technologies, and that its work has ended up in almost all Microsoft products.
Indeed, a few of the projects on view are expected to be included in some upcoming Microsoft releases. Other projects were in the prototype stage.
Many of the demonstrations featured work on natural user interfaces, especially those allowing a user to interact with a big display screen.
Researcher Michel Pahud, for instance, is working on an interface that allows people to use touch and a pen, at the same time on a digital whiteboard.
A sensor can also detect when a user steps a few feet away from the board, allowing the presenter to use her smartphone as a controller for the display.
[Continue reading the story here.]