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July 16, 2013 at 6:13 PM

Researchers show off projects at Microsoft’s DemoFest

A sign language translator that uses the Kinect motion sensor.

A platform that lets city planners keep in touch with neighborhood residents during development projects.

Those were among the dozens of projects that Microsoft researchers, as well as teams of university students, demonstrated Tuesday during Microsoft Research Faculty Summit’s DemoFest.

This year, 400 people are attending the summit, an annual gathering of researchers both from Microsoft’s advanced research labs around the world and from academia. DemoFest — essentially a science fair — is where they get to give hands-on demonstrations of what they’ve been working on.

Among the projects this year:

Toward Better Communication with Kinect (Janet I. Tu / The Seattle Times)

Toward Better Communication with Kinect (Janet I. Tu / The Seattle Times)

Toward Better Communication with Kinect is a sign-language translation project developed  by Microsoft Research Asia and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Researchers built a computer-software model on top of the raw skeletal gestures recognized by the Kinect motion and voice sensor, allowing the technology to pick up the smaller, subtler gestures used in sign languages.

The prototype demonstrated Tuesday by Hsiao-Wen Hon, managing director of Microsoft Asia, was able to translate American Sign Language and Chinese Sign Language into speech or text (English and Chinese) on a computer screen. (Different countries have different sign languages.)

It could also translate in the opposite direction, with a person  typing text on a keyboard, for example, and an avatar onscreen translating that into the proper sign language gestures.

Lab of Things is a platform for research that uses connected devices in the home, allowing researchers to more easily manage and collect and analyze data.

Researchers, such as those working in health care or computer interaction, often conduct studies of people in their homes. But one of the most limiting factors is how often they are allowed into their subjects’ home,  when,  for instance, sensor software needs updating, said Arjmand Samuel with Microsoft Research in Redmond.

Lab of Things should make it easier to deploy such studies since all it requires is a wireless network, and  for the researcher to bring in a home hub — a laptop or even a netbook running Windows 7 or 8  — that can talk to the sensors set up there.

When a sensor detects an activity, for example, it can then send an email to the researcher. Software updates can be deployed over the air without going into people’s homes. And all the data collected goes into a cloud owned by the researcher, allowing her to more easily analyze it, said A.J. Brush with Microsoft Research in Redmond. Researchers can also see what is happening on their mobile devices.

The beta version of Lab of Things is available for download now and is already in use,  Brush said.

Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs (Janet I. Tu / The Seattle Times)

Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs (Janet I. Tu / The Seattle Times)

Also a tradition at the summit is Design Expo, in which Microsoft brings together teams from universities around the world that it’s been working with on computer interaction-design projects.

For many years, the fields of computer science and design were  separate, said Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs. Microsoft was interested in  more integration and began working with universities to create a 10-week program on interaction and design. Microsoft picks the schools — usually a different roster each year — as well as the professors, and sets a general theme. It’s up to the faculty and students to decide what to do with that theme.

“The goal for us is to build long-term relationships with the design schools,” Cheng said, as well as to get ideas of trends, of what younger people are thinking about, and of things, in general, that Microsoft researchers might not be exploring.

This year, the theme was “making data useful” and teams from nine universities around the world, including the University of Washington, demonstrated their prototypes at Design Expo.

The UW team demonstrated Community Slate, which allows city planners to more easily keep in touch with, and get feedback from, neighborhood residents during development projects.

Residents now find out about local development projects from the city, usually through public meetings, which is time consuming and precludes some people from attending. And it’s not the most efficient way for city planners to get  feedback on things like zoning or design decisions, said the UW students involved in the project.

Community Slate uses the Web, a mobile app and physical billboards to try to streamline the process.

The way it works is the city would offer the service, notifying residents of it through means such as a billboard in the neighborhood that has a near-field communications sensor. That would allow residents to tap their smartphone against the billboard to pull up Community Slate.

For city planners, Community Slate aims to focus feedback from residents by letting planners specify the questions they want to get feedback on during, say, the zoning or design process.

The project is “trying to get the community involved and give people a voice and acknowledge that urban planners want feedback,” said Erin Murphy, a recent UW graduate who worked on the project.

Students from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, meanwhile, showed off AMP, which allows people to instantly see what events or places in the city are generating significant social-media interest at any given time.

The project involves an app and a lamp that creates shadows on a table meant to represent a map of the city. When tweets or photos are shared in the city, those shadows create a ripple in a certain location on the table. Placing a smartphone in the center of the ripples then pulls up information on what’s going on on the app.

Koen Beljaars, an Eindhoven University of Technology student who worked on AMP, envisions it being used in bars or tourist hot spots — anywhere people would want to know what locations are currently generating buzz in the city.


Comments | More in Microsoft | Topics: community slate, demofest, design expo


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