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Microsoft Research Celebrates 2009
December 22, 2009 3:00 PM PT

The approach of the new year is traditionally a time to take stock of the activities and accomplishments of the previous 12 months. And when such retrospection occurs in 2009 at Microsoft Research, there’s abundant reason for pride and holiday cheer.

Certainly, when Rico Malvar, managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond, reflects on the year’s developments, it’s hard for him to suppress an admiring smile.

“It has been another great year,” Malvar says, “with lots of exciting projects, many product contributions, and many interactions with the academic community.”

No kidding. New, exciting applications developed within Microsoft Research? Check. Interesting, important research that advances the state of the art in computer science? Check. Technology transfer into Microsoft products? Check. Notable events, key hires, an enduring spirit of collaboration? Check, check, and check.

Let’s start with Microsoft Research technology that is already finding its way into the hands of fellow researchers, software developers, and consumers. Few recent applications have gained more critical plaudits than WorldWide Telescope, which enables anybody with computer access to explore imagery from the world’s foremost ground and space-based telescopes, either via a Windows client or on the Web, utilizing Microsoft Silverlight 3.0. It’s a project of profound, wondrous beauty, and both the Windows and Web versions were made available this year, opening new astronomical vistas to school kids and professional astronomers alike.

In another effort to augment our ability to comprehend and communicate with the world around us, the Bing Translator feature in Microsoft’s popular search engine enables users to learn and communicate across language barriers. English readers, scroll through some Chinese Web sites—and vice versa. Arabic readers, see what’s happening on Finnish sites. The Bing Translator, which uses machine-translation technology from Microsoft Research Redmond, is enabling a truly worldwide Web, it’s getting better all the time, and, best of all, it’s free.

Helping Developers

Microsoft Research hasn’t forgotten the software developers, either. Continued work on Dryad and DryadLINQ provides programming models for writing parallel and distributed programs that can scale from a small cluster of computers to enormous data centers, and an academic release of DryadLINQ was made available for public download. In addition, the Pex project enables a new development experience in Visual Studio Team System, taking test-driven development to the next level with analysis of .NET applications.

And then there’s the beta availability of Microsoft Tag, Microsoft Research technology that provides an interactive, 2-D bar-code reader. Users can use their mobile-phone cameras to capture a Tag image and gain instant access to a limitless array of Web information and entertainment, and it’s easy: just see it, snap it, and share it!

Of course, many Microsoft Research projects are ongoing, such as the Shortest Path work out of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, which is examining this long-time computer-science problem in the context of popular map applications on the Web. At Microsoft Research New England, Henry Cohn, principal researcher, has been working with Abhinav Kumar of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a technique to generate the self-assembly of nanoscale structures.

Meanwhile, the Redmond-based Green project is exploring ways to promote energy efficiency via software development. And the Situated Interaction project, also from Redmond, aims to deliver interactive systems that embed interaction and computation into the natural flow of everyday tasks, in scenarios such as human-robot interaction, the e-home, and systems that monitor, assist and coordinate complex tasks.

The latter gained notice during TechFest 2009, Microsoft Research’s annual technology showcase, where researchers from facilities around the world gather to demonstrate their top projects to an audience of thousands of Microsoft employees. Held annually in Redmond, TechFest is just one of several key events sponsored by Microsoft Research. Others drawing intense interest in 2009 included:

  • Faculty Summit: A lively discussion on Microsoft’s Redmond campus among academics, governmental thought leaders, and Microsoft personnel about new opportunities for research and development.
  • D.C. TechFair: An event held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which gave a largely governmental audience a peek at forward-looking technology.
  • Computing in the 21st Century: Microsoft Research Asia’s flagship event, held for the 11th straight year, but for the first time wholly outside of China—in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. The theme of Three Screens and One Cloud: Rethinking Computing gave an assemblage of researchers and scientists an opportunity to discuss how businesses and consumers can take advantage of technologies from various form factors.

The year started off with a bang in England when talks from Chris Bishop, chief research scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge, were televised as the prestigious Christmas Lectures, inaugurated in the early 19th century by famous British scientist Michael Faraday and hosted each year by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

As 2009 continued, Microsoft Research was delighted to contribute to a couple of significant Microsoft products, one eagerly anticipated and one already on the market.

“Our advances in computer vision and audio-signal processing,” Malvar notes, “have enabled the development of Project Natal, a new level of experience for Xbox, in which user gestures and voice take the place of the standard game controller.

“We are also very excited with the release of Windows 7. Several contributions from Microsoft Research, in close partnership with the Windows product team, have helped make this the best operating system ever shipped by Microsoft.”

As is its habit, Microsoft Research also embarked on some new ventures in 2009. One was the creation of the new, Redmond-based Computer Architecture Group, which got off to a quick start by hosting the first New Directions in Computer Architecture workshop in December. That came six months after the creation of the eXtreme Computing Group, which is developing radical new approaches to ultrascale and high-performance computing hardware and software.

Sharing and collaboration have long been the hallmark of Microsoft Research’s collaborative efforts. One such activity, dubbed Project Tuva, uses an advanced video player to provide searchable video, linked transcripts, and interactive elements to a series of seven celebrated physics lectures delivered in 1964 by renowned Cornell University professor Richard Feynman.

Many of Microsoft Research’s collaborative ventures come under the auspices of its External Research division. In addition to its traditional grants of graduate fellowships and new-faculty fellowships, it also began accepting proposals for the Microsoft Research Software Engineering Innovation Foundation Awards, research grants in seminal software engineering, innovative software-engineering education, and improvements in software development.

Other External Research collaborative efforts in 2009:

  • mHealth Summit: Held Oct. 29-30 in Washington, D.C., the event explored the use of mobile technologies to improve public health.
  • eHeritage: Microsoft Research Asia’s project, in conjunction with Asia Pacific academia, to apply advanced technology to the digitization, preservation, and dissemination of cultural heritage.
  • As part of May’s Open Repositories Conference, the Scholarly Communication team announced the availability of a pair of tools: Zentity, a research-output repository that enables researchers to store, archive, and preserve their work efficiently; and the Article Authoring Add-in for Word 2007, an enhanced version of technology first released in the summer of 2008.
  • The Fourth Paradigm: a book, subtitled Date-Intensive Scientific Discovery, that presents the first broad look at the rapidly emerging field of data-intensive science.

Obviously, with more than 800 researchers across the globe, many more scientific advances and developments occurred in 2009 than can be summarized here. And that drumbeat will continue. In late January, for example, Microsoft Research India will celebrate its fifth anniversary with its annual research symposium, TechVista, heralding what promises to be another year of technological innovation.

“This is just a small sample of the many great activities at Microsoft Research in 2009,” Malvar concludes. “We look forward to many more in 2010!”