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Improving Collaboration and Communication
By Rob Knies
March 7, 2007 6:00 AM PT

One of the hallmarks of innovation is that it builds on the work of others. Scientific breakthroughs don’t occur in a vacuum. Today’s aeronautics engineers can trace their work back to the Wright brothers. Benjamin Franklin prefigured the work of Thomas Edison. Whoever it was who harnessed fire or invented the wheel, rest assured that they, too, learned from those who had gone before.

So it is, as well, in information technology. We live in a fast-twitch age, in which today’s sensation becomes a platform on which to build tomorrow’s. Even as the latest technology is unveiled, somebody, somewhere, is making plans to improve upon it. News travels fast these days, and human ingenuity is up to the challenge.

Nowhere is that more evident than at TechFest, Microsoft Research’s annual celebration of research innovation, being held March 7-8 in Redmond. More than 150 demos—encompassing the breadth of computer-science disciplines and stemming from Microsoft Research labs located in Redmond; Silicon Valley; Cambridge, England; Beijing; and Bangalore, India—testify to the never-ending quest to improve upon the state of the technological art.

For example, a couple of the booths at TechFest feature projects to extend current technologies to make it even easier and more convenient for people to communicate and collaborate. A closer look:

Everyday Surfaces Become Interactive

Andy Wilson’s demo features game play, but it’s not really about games at all.

Wilson, a researcher within the Adaptive Systems and Interaction group at Microsoft Research Redmond, works on surface computing, a concept devised in collaboration with Steven Bathiche, a research manager with the Microsoft Hardware group. Surface computing involves imbuing everyday surfaces—a table top, a whiteboard—with interactive capabilities, enabling them to act as displays that respond to touch or gesture or objects placed atop them.

He has received quite a bit of attention for his previous projects, such as TouchLight, which uses a combination of a projector, sensors, and cameras to transform a sheet of acrylic plastic into a display on which objects respond to user gestures, and PlayAnywhere, an interactive projection-vision system that features a real-life version of the sort of futuristic technology depicted as being used by Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report.

The latest step forward from Wilson is an extension of PlayAnywhere called PlayTogether, a collaboration with Daniel Robbins, a user-interface designer from Microsoft Research Redmond’s Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment group. PlayTogether uses a couple of networked PlayAnywhere units to enable collaboration between remote users in a virtual 3-D environment.

“Essentially, what’s going on is we have the video from one machine being sent to the video of another,” Wilson says. “The effect you have is that you’re at the desk, you’re manipulating something, and you see your partner’s hands in the scene. Anything they’re doing on their surface is reflected onto yours.”

Say you’re playing chess with a PlayTogether-enabled opponent . You choose the move Rh4. You then see your opponent’s hands hover into view atop the board; she opts for Qxh4—it all happens, horrifyingly, right in front of your eyes, even though the opponent is a thousand miles away. You’ve lost a rook. At least you can’t hear her gleeful cackle.

“Contrast that with an approach that involves icons or cursors that depict other people,” Wilson says. “There’s no intermediary. I’m seeing exactly what the other machine sees.”

What’s not quite as obvious is that while game play might provide a compelling—even diverting—demonstration, the research behind it holds vastly broader potential.

“Once display hardware and technology become cheap enough,” Wilson explains, “you can afford to start putting display and computational goodies together and using them in interesting ways that you would never have considered before.

“In an office setting,” he adds, “you can imagine having a wall display or a conference-table display that reflects all the documents appropriate to a meeting and enable multiple people to interact with them at once. I want people to think of new ways to use this kind of technology and to go find interesting places to deploy it.”

In other words, Wilson seems to be saying to the developer community, it’s your move.

Text Messaging for Small and Emerging-Market Businesses

Short Message Service (SMS) has become ubiquitous in many parts of the world, particularly in emerging markets, where challenging rural conditions and the costs of PC maintenance can be prohibitive.

Responding to the popularity of SMS, Microsoft Research India has been investigating ways for people to connect PC and Internet applications to SMS-capable phones and to create useful, SMS-based applications. One product of such research is the SMS Toolkit, which enables anyone with a PC and a Windows Mobile®-based phone to run an SMS server.*

“This new mobile system,” says Rajesh Veeraraghavan, an associate researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets group, “replicates almost all of the PC-based functionality and is cheaper, adds additional functionality, and is more popular.”

The SMS Toolkit stems from work Veeraraghavan and colleagues performed as part of a project called Warana Unwired. That, in turn, emerged from an earlier effort called the Warana Wired Village, involving a sugar-cane cooperative in a rural community in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The co-op serves about 50,000 farmers across 75 villages, and in 1998, the Indian government started a pilot project to bridge the digital divide in which 54 PC kiosks were established to connect the farmers. The original goal was to provide the farmers with Internet access so they could check market prices to obtain the best price for their product, and to establish a remote agricultural-advisory system.

The pilot was not wildly successful, because PC maintenance was difficult and expensive. So Microsoft Research India replaced the PCs with SMS phones connected via USB to a PC server to create an SMS gateway that receives incoming SMS messages and converts them into database calls. Now, the system is available 24 hours a day, and farmers use it in a variety of mobile settings—buying fertilizer, checking their payment history, registering their land—and the savings are considerable. The model is being extended to other sectors, enabling schools, for example, to send bulk SMS messages to students’ parents.

“We’ve worked hard to make the programming model very simple,” says Sean Blagsvedt, head of Advanced Prototyping and Program Management for Microsoft Research India, “so a developer does not have to worry about which phone is in use or the intricacies of USB connections.

“Additionally, for simple scenarios such as sending bulk SMS messages or creating SMS-based information –access applications, we’ve provided samples in Excel so that no programming is required.”

One challenge is that SMS messages are limited to 160 characters. But that, too, has been addressed.

“It’s incredibly easy,” Blagsvedt says, “for a developer to enable an SMS user to send a simple query. Our code takes care of splitting the resulting matches into multiple SMS messages that the user can effectively scroll through to get the particular result desired.”

In such scenarios, this sort of research success means not only doing well, but also doing good.

“We are most excited,” Blagsvedt says, “about lowering the technical ability needed to create an SMS-based application. We hope this will lead to many more SMS applications throughout the world.”

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*Connectivity and synchronization may require separately purchased equipment and/or wireless products, such as a Wi-Fi card, network software, server hardware, and/or redirector software. Service plans are required for Internet, Wi-Fi and phone access. Features and performance may vary by service provider and are subject to network limitations. See your device manufacturer, your service provider, and/or your corporate IT department for details.