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Microsoft’s Fourth Dimension
By Jia Wu, China Internet Weekly
April 5, 2009 2:00 PM PT

“This is my second visit to Microsoft Research Asia,” said Zhiwei Xiong, a PhD candidate at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). “The first visit was in the senior year of my undergraduate studies when I came to do my graduation project, the one I started last year when I became an intern at Microsoft Research Asia." Xiong’s opportunity for in-depth learning and research at Microsoft Research Asia has made his classmates envious. How did he get here?

"Microsoft Research Asia has a joint lab in USTC, and one of this lab’s projects happened to fall in my area of study," said a smiling Xiong. Joint laboratories have been a key component of Microsoft Research Asia University Relations program. Bill Gates was deeply impressed by the intelligence, passion and creativity of local students during his first visit to China in 1998. Thanks in part to that visit, Microsoft made up its mind to bring one of its main research facilities to China. Microsoft Research Asia has a deep connection to local universities, and these types of joint labs embody that connection.

With joint labs, Microsoft cleverly brings together talent from both the corporate world and the academic world to create a new mode of cooperation. "Through specific research subjects, outstanding researchers meet each other on the same platform,” said Gao Zhang, Senior Manager of University Relations at Microsoft Research Asia. “The result is a high level of creativity that attracts an increasing amount of support for the effective development of high quality researchers.”

Joint labs create for Microsoft a fourth division that is set apart from the existing three, namely Branding, Marketing, and R&D, and serves as a magnet through which the company can attract more resources, not just for its own development but for the development of the entire industry.

Rendezvous with the Stars

When asked which Microsoft-university joint project has had the most impressive results, Zhang singled out the Microsoft Worldwide Telescope (WWT) presented at the Microsoft Research Asia Faculty Summit 2008. It is not easy for amateur astronomers to explore the universe. Weather conditions, bad locations, and inferior equipment can get in the way when they are trying to have intimate visual contact with the stars. Today, all these obstacles can be easily overcome, as the Internet helps to pull back the veils that envelope the night sky – the stars are just a few mouse clicks away.

Offering a colossal database and accurate processing, computational science is amazingly able to work side by side with a variety of academic disciplines to propel collective and in-depth development. In essence, Microsoft WWT is an on-line visualization system using data from astronomical observations. "This platform provides academics with an open interface, where users are allowed to share via the Internet their astronomical observatory data with all astronomy enthusiasts in the world," Zhang explained, "Through all-out cooperation between Microsoft Research Asia and the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a lot of Chinese astrology data, including changes in the tracks of the Altair and the Vega, were integrated into Microsoft`s WWT, which enables amateur astronomers in other parts of the world to have a glance of China’s night sky.”

With a networked computer, you can log on to the website and install free software applications before a sky-like user interface guides you to watch the process. Interdisciplinary cooperation made it possible to enrich WWT’s database with an ancient Chinese map of the stars, and to gain a global perspective on the rediscovery of mysterious historical astronomical occurrences observed in Asia. .

Empowering ordinary people to explore the night sky, a mission that is not directly relevant to Microsoft in any sense, was accomplished through a joint project between Microsoft and its partner universities.

Practical Research

Enterprise-sponsored research institutes usually serve as bridges between the academic community and the corporate world. More responsive to industry demands, they are conducting solid academic research that closes the gap between academics and people working in the industry.

Prior to his current post as head of University Relations in China, Zhang was a researcher with the User Interface Group at Microsoft Research Asia. His first project was to address issues related to Chinese character input methods in 1999, when input of Chinese characters was far less convenient than it is today. Zhang, who was already engaged in human-computer interaction as a student, did not think much of this project, but he changed his mind at the sight of an estimate by Microsoft Research Asia that said there are more than 100 million computer users in the country who need to input Chinese characters and that the total time saved by a 10 percent increase in the efficiency of such Chinese character input methods may exceed the sum of the time it takes to boot their computers. Since then, Zhang has been convinced that a research project, regardless of its scale, has to be practically meaningful to users. The input method project turned out to be a success, and resulted in the first U.S. patent of Microsoft Research Asia.

Continuing with his research career would have allowed him to look closely at a specific piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle, but Zhang’s thirst for knowledge about the whole picture drove him to explore the entire R&D system at Microsoft. The University Relations Group happened to have a job opening that would allow him to understand and promote Microsoft's latest technologies through cooperation with universities. In 2000, Zhang began to consider a career change. "My work on university relations not only meets my curiosity in many lines of research,” he said, “but also truly helps lots of students and teachers. Therefore, it’s an ideal choice for me." To him, University Relations is still a research project, but the focus shifts from human-computer interaction to people-people interaction. This research is not only interesting but also more useful.

Zhang’s experience as a researcher made him a natural fit for University Relations. Microsoft's technological research emphasizes the needs of its users; the same is true of university relations. Instead of single-mindedly “promoting” (or outsourcing) readily available projects, Zhang and his colleagues walk the extra mile to figure out brand new projects that meet the needs of students and professors on campus, striving for an outcome that benefits everyone. When interacting with universities, Microsoft Research Asia puts greater significance on the contribution of the joint projects to the academic community, the student groups, and the entirety of Microsoft Research.

Become a Hero

"Now the Chinese government offers powerful support for basic research, but young people still do not have enough opportunities there. Microsoft's Fellowship Program and Young Faculty Program are designed to grant much needed assistance to young people," said Zhang as he began to talk about the many projects that come under the University Relations division of Microsoft Research Asia, specifically mentioning the “Great Wall Plan.”

Launched in 2002, the "Great Wall Plan" encompasses comprehensive cooperation between Microsoft and the Ministry of Education (MOE) to support universities in China. As part of the plan, Microsoft Research Asia conducts projects with universities and research institutes through joint labs, provides internship opportunities, and arranges lectures by visiting professors. "The 'Great Wall Plan’ has been highly recognized by the MOE,” said Zhang with great pride. “For five years in a row, we’ve won MOE special contribution awards for initiating sustainable innovation through school-enterprise cooperation.”

Microsoft annually grants 200 to 300 internship offers to students like Xiong, and Microsoft Research Asia is now an open platform for college students to exchange ideas and innovate. "My internship experience at Microsoft Research Asia will be of great value to my future career,” says Xiong. “With a job in an enterprise, it will take a much shorter period of time for me to adjust to the new environment. If I pursue a research profession, my mentors at Microsoft, who are leaders in this field, had already unveiled to me the most cutting-edge achievements in the world." Xiong did not forget to mention Xuejin Chen, Yin He, Qing Luan and Guojun Qi, his fellow students at USTC who, due to their outstanding performance as Microsoft interns, were invited to a barbecue and a discussion on technologies of the future at Bill Gates’ home.

In era of information where everything is interconnected, Microsoft, already not content to stay within the bounds of IT, is gradually extending its reach into other walks of life. Joint research with universities serves as a type of shortcut into new fields. Now that IT is increasingly intertwined with other lines of business, Microsoft has started to probe directions for future research in fields such as cultural heritage protection, education, energy, health care and even a number of inter-disciplinary issues. The University Relations program helps Microsoft lure more future-oriented human resources to its "fourth dimension" in an effort to build UPS (uninterrupted power supply) for long-term development of the company and the entire IT industry.

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