Research Focus in U.K., Silicon Valley
May 3, 2010 9:00 AM PT

As the crow flies, it’s 5,344 miles from Mountain View, Calif., to Cambridge, U.K.—or, if you prefer, 8,600 kilometers. That equates to a continent, an ocean, and most of the British Isles. It’s a long way.

But from a research perspective, in the first week of May, the two cities will become virtual neighbors.

On May 5, Microsoft Research Cambridge will host its second annual Enabling Innovation Through Research (EITR) event.

The next day, at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley offers its own event, the fifth biennial Silicon Valley TechFair.

The two showcases might be separated by vast differences and eight time zones—and each event will have its own special flavor—but they also will share a common focus: addressing the new challenges and opportunities offered by advances in computing in the 21st century.

Both EITR and the TechFair will address cloud computing, both will feature work on natural user interfaces, and both will underscore the nature of technology transfers into Microsoft products that are making computing easier and more flexible.

“We are in the business of innovation,” says Andrew Herbert, Microsoft distinguished engineer and managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, “and, through both the talent of our researchers and our links with academic institutions, governments, industry partners, and entrepreneurs, we aim to create software technologies that improve the way the world works, plays, and relaxes.”

Those technologies, notes Roy Levin, also a Microsoft distinguished engineer and managing director of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, regularly find their way into Microsoft products.

“Often, people think of research as work that is always about the future—and that the future never arrives.” Levin says. “Microsoft wouldn’t have research labs if they didn’t make a difference in our products.”

May’s back-to-back events figure to have an impact that bridges the distance between the two labs, and given the emphasis both place on the value of collaboration, it could hardly be otherwise.

Representatives of governmental, academic, and industrial elites, along with partners, customers, and select media, will be invited to attend each gathering. They will hear how Microsoft Research is advancing the state of the art in computer science by introducing new features and functionality into Microsoft products and services and by addressing world-scale challenges with an eye to changing society for the better. And the attendees will get a chance to witness demonstrations of new, cutting-edge technologies from Microsoft Research.

As is evidenced by recent advances in cloud-based computing and new, natural ways of interacting with computers, the world is on the brink of a technological transformation that will define the future. This spring, in England and in California, audiences for these Microsoft Research events will get a look at some of the components of marvels to come.

Enabling Innovation Through Research

Europe has proved to be a rich source of talent for Microsoft, and the Cambridge event is part of an effort to foster innovation in the region through investment and partnerships.

Representatives of the research community will hear Herbert deliver a keynote address that outlines his lab’s projects and collaborations to deliver experience, expertise, and value to the broad knowledge-based economy across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

He also will discuss how the combination of cloud computing and extremely powerful client machines will define the coming era of technology—and enable advances certain to have significant societal impact. Some of those advances will come through natural user interfaces such as gestures, anticipatory computing, contextual and environmental awareness, and 3-D or immersive experiences.

In addition, he will detail work showing how probabilistic modeling will expand greatly the ability to take advantage of today’s explosion of data to harness the complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty such a data deluge poses. The variety and scale of vast data collections offers unprecedented opportunity to devise exciting, new machine-learning applications.

Amplifying Herbert’s keynote message will be Microsoft Research Cambridge thought leaders Chris Bishop, distinguished scientist, and Andrew Blake and Ken Wood, the lab’s deputy managing directors.

Visitors will get an opportunity to view 22 demos, most from Microsoft Research Cambridge but also including one from the European Microsoft Innovation Center; one from the BSC-Microsoft Research Centre, a collaborative effort by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and Microsoft Research Cambridge; another from the lab’s partnership with Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA), the French national institute for research in computer science and control; and a fourth from Microsoft Research’s eXtreme Computing Group.

Several of the demos will address cloud computing, while others display research into new, natural user interfaces. In addition, Infer.NET, a framework for running Bayesian inference in graphical models that can be used to solve many kinds of machine-learning problems, also will be shown.

The types of projects that attack big societal issues include Medical Image Analysis, a new technology to enable automatic and semiautomatic analysis of n-dimensional medical images; SenseCam, a wearable, fish-eye digital camera, licensed to Vicon as the Vicon Revue, that takes photographs without user intervention and holds promise for assisting patients with memory loss; and Simulating Global Carbon Climate Feedback, an effort to model the impact of carbon levels in the environment.

Microsoft Research, of course, has made contributions to almost every Microsoft product over the years, and Microsoft Research Cambridge is no exception in creating software technologies that improve the way the world works and plays. Collaboration between researchers and product teams help usher new technologies into products, and in bringing cutting-edge technologies into products faster and more economically, Microsoft Research smashes through barriers in emerging product categories, such as with the tabletop Microsoft Surface.

Among the tech transfers to be shown during EITR 2010 will be F#, a programming language with compilers and tools that enable .NET development with a mix of functional, imperative, and object-oriented styles; Background Image Removal, which is being incorporated into Office 2010; and Body Part Recognition, an algorithm that takes depth-camera images and decides in real time which pixels belong to which parts of your body.

As an organization, Microsoft Research Cambridge has built a reputation as a font of transformative technology, deemed critical for the vitality of businesses in the region, and those who attend EITR 2010 will learn not only how the lab is pioneering next-generation technology, but also how it is driving trends that promise fundamental change to how people will use technology in the future.

Silicon Valley TechFair

Under Levin’s leadership, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley has a demonstrated history of collaboration with university researchers in the Bay Area, and the lab has been the nexus of projects that explore areas such as privacy and data-center services for data-intensive computing.

Both of those themes will receive healthy representation among the 22 demos to be shown May 6 during the TechFair, including projects from Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, Microsoft Research Redmond, and Microsoft Research Asia. Additional focus will be placed on tech transfers into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

“Several of the TechFair demos showcase technologies that have been incorporated into Bing,” Levin observed. “These go far beyond traditional keyword search to encompass images, real-time content, and interaction, to enable users to get the content they want.

“A large part of the Bing product team is based in Silicon Valley, and we strive both here and elsewhere to enhance Bing with research innovations.”

During a keynote address by Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research senior vice president, a demo entitled eScience in the Cloud will describe efforts made by Catharine van Ingen, a San Francisco-based partner architect for Microsoft Research’s External Research group, and James Hunt from the Berkeley Water Center to develop a Digital Watershed for Northern California’s Russian River.

Such work is evidence of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley’s insistence on cross-boundary collaboration.

“We have no formal group structure at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley,” Levin explains, “so researchers find it easy to collaborate with anyone who has a good idea and brings useful expertise to a project. That freedom can extend to collaboration outside our lab and outside Microsoft entirely, often involving researchers at Bay Area universities and even further afield. Removing boundaries enables creativity.”

Advancing the state of the art. Addressing the toughest computing challenges. Transferring technology into Microsoft products. Collaborating with the external research community. Since 1991, these have been the hallmarks of Microsoft Research, and, as attendees of the Enabling Innovation Through Research event and the Silicon Valley TechFair will learn this week, they remain front and center—in all corners of the world.