MSR gets wired, WIRED gets MSR

MS Research in natural-user-interaction technologies
MSR natural-user-interaction immersive technologies

WIRED Magazine’s online site ran a great long profile of Microsoft Research late yesterday, with interviews and project features: “How Microsoft Researchers Might Invent a Holodeck.”

I have written about or mentioned all of the individual projects or technologies on my blog before, but the writing at WIRED is so much better than my own – and the photographs so cool – that I thought I should post a link to the story. Continue reading

Virtual recipe stirs in Apple iPad, Microsoft Kinect

Who says Apple and Microsoft can’t work together?  They certainly do, at least when it involves the ingenuity of their users, the more inventive of whom use technologies from both companies (and others).

Here’s a neat example, “a just-for-fun experiment from the guys at Laan Labs” where they whip up a neat Augmented Reality recipe: take one iPad, one Kinect, and stir:

Some technical detail from the Brothers Laan, the engineers who did the work:

We used the String Augmented Reality SDK to display real-time 3d video+audio recorded from the Kinect. Libfreenect from http://openkinect.org/ project was used for recording the data coming from the Kinect. A textured mesh was created from the calibrated depth+rgb data for each frame and played back in real-time. A simple depth cutoff allowed us isolate the person in the video from the walls and other objects. Using the String SDK, we projected it back onto a printed image marker in the real world.” - source, Laan Labs blog.

As always, check out http://www.kinecthacks.com/ for the latest and greatest Kinect hacks – or more accurately now, the latest cool uses of the openly released free Kinect SDK, available here.

There are several quiet projects underway around the DC Beltway to make use of the SDK, testing non-commercial but government-relevant deployments – more detail and examples at the appropriate time. We will eventually release a commercial SDK with even more functionality and higher-level programming controls, which will directly benefit government early adopters.

In the meantime, I may report on some of the new advances being made by our research group on Computational User Experiences, who “apply expertise in machine learning, visualization, mobile computing, sensors and devices, and quantitative and qualitative evaluation techniques to improve the state of the art in physiological computing, healthcare, home technologies, computer-assisted creativity, and entertainment.” That’s a rich agenda, and the group is in the very forefront of defining how Natural User Interaction (NUI) will enhance our personal and professional lives….

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Kinecting Communities

On April 16 I will be speaking at the Mobile Citizen Summit in Washington DC (registration still open), which brings together “practitioners across the  government, nonprofit, advocacy, and political spaces—the kinds of  people who develop the strategy and the tools to reach, engage, educate,  and enable citizens across the country and around the world.”

But I’m going to be talking about “mobile” in a different way than others still use the term, i.e. they focus on a handheld device, while I will be focusing on the mobile citizen. As I have said before I don’t believe our future involves experiencing “augmented reality” by always holding up little 3-inch plastic screens in front of our faces. Natural user interfaces and immersive computing offer much more to how we access computational resources – and how technology will help us interact with one another. Here’s an example, in a story from the past week.

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Tearing the Roof off a 2-Terabyte House

I was home last night playing with the new Kinect, integrating it with Twitter, Facebook, and Zune. Particularly because of the last service, I was glad that I got the Xbox 360 model with the 250-gigabyte (gb) hard disk drive. It holds a lot more music, or photos, and of course primarily games and game data.

So we wind up with goofy scenes like my wife zooming along yesterday in Kinect Adventures’ River Rush – not only my photo (right) but in-game photos taken by the Kinect Sensor, sitting there below the TV monitor.

Later as I was waving my hands at the TV screen, swiping magically through the air to sweep through Zune’s albums and songs as if pawing through a shelf of actual LP’s, I absent-mindedly started totting up the data-storage capacity of devices and drives in my household.  Here’s a rough accounting:

  • One Zune music-player, 120gb;
  • 2 old iPods 30gb + 80gb;
  • an iPad 3G at 16gb;
  • one HP netbook 160gb;
  • an aging iMac G5 with 160gb;
  • three Windows laptops of 60gb, 150gb, and 250gb;
  • a DirecTV DVR with a 360gb disk;
  • a single Seagate 750gb external HDD;
  • a few 1gb, 2gb, and a single 32gb SD cards for cameras;
  • a handful of 2gb, 4gb, and one 16gb USB flash drives;
  • and most recently a 250gb Xbox 360, for Kinect. 

All told, I’d estimate that my household data storage capacity totals 2.5 terabytes. A terabyte, you’ll recall, is 1012 bytes, or 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) bytes, or alternately a thousand gigabytes.

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Four Score and Seven Years Ago

Today, August 5, has a number of interesting anniversaries in the world of technology and government. In 1858 the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed, allowing President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria to share congratulatory messages the following week. (Unfortunately within a month the cable had broken down for good.)  The first quasar (“quasi-stellar astronomical radio object”) was discovered on Aug. 5, 1962. And exactly one year later the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed on August 5, 1963, between the U.S., U.S.S.R., and Great Britain.

But one important date I’d like to commemorate was a bit different: eighty-seven years ago today, on August 5, 1923, my father was born, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Happy Birthday, Dad!

There’s a shorthand way of telling my father’s life-history which fits with the theme of technological advance: he graduated from college (his beloved N.C. State) as an early recipient of a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering; he worked for decades for a growing company interested in adopting new technologies to drive its business; and he capped his career as Corporate Vice President for Research and Development at a Fortune 300 company.

But that misses the fun he had along the way, and the close-up view he had of innovation. He was an early adopter, even before college. (I like to think I get that from him.)  So I thought I’d illustrate a couple of vignettes I’ve heard over the years of his interaction with computers along the way, simply to portray the thrust of radical change that has paced along during the course of one man’s life.

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Using the body in new virtual ways

This is CHI 2010 week, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Atlanta. Top researchers in human-computer-interaction (HCI) are together April 10-15 for presentations, panels, exhibits, and discussions. Partly because of our intense interest in using new levels of computational power to develop great new Natural User Interfaces (NUI), Microsoft Research is well represented at CHI 2010 as pointed out in an MSR note on the conference:

This year, 38 technical papers submitted by Microsoft Research were accepted by the conference, representing 10 percent of the papers accepted. Three of the Microsoft Research papers, covering vastly different topics, won Best Paper awards, and seven others received Best Paper nominations.

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Slate of the Union Day

Today is “Slate of the Union” day, when the two most charismatic individuals in recent American history go on stage and attempt to reclaim mantles as innovators. I’ll leave aside the fellow with lower poll numbers for now (President Obama). More eyes in the tech world will be watching as Steve Jobs makes his newest product announcement, the Apple tablet/Tabloid/iSlate thing iPad (it’s official).

Back in the late 1980s I worked for the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Tom McEnery (he was actually the mayor of San Jose), and we did many joint projects with Apple, particularly with CEO John Sculley, a great guy.

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Para Bellum Web

Tim O'Reilly, Ray Ozzie

Tim O’Reilly created a bit of a stir last night in the tech world by writing a thoughtful essay entitled “The War for the Web.” He’ll be expanding on his thoughts in his keynote address today at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. From the essay, here’s the core argument:

“[W]e’ve grown used to a world with one dominant search engine, one dominant online encyclopedia, one dominant online retailer, one dominant auction site, one dominant online classified site, and we’ve been readying ourselves for one dominant social network. But what happens when a company with one of these natural monopolies uses it to gain dominance in other, adjacent areas? I’ve been watching with a mixture of admiration and alarm as Google has taken their dominance in search and used it to take control of other, adjacent data-driven applications.

It could be that everyone will figure out how to play nicely with each other, and we’ll see a continuation of the interoperable web model we’ve enjoyed for the past two decades. But I’m betting that things are going to get ugly. We’re heading into a war for control of the web. And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform. [emphasis added] Instead, we’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.

… P.S. One prediction: Microsoft will emerge as a champion of the open web platform, supporting interoperable web services from many independent players, much as IBM emerged as the leading enterprise backer of Linux.

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The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”  Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” :)

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science. Several of us have been following Mitch Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.” 

One area where he has been exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration, Dr. Zakin is directing a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that―

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        – DARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave the agency in 2010. He is uncertain where he’s heading, but perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing.  

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it’s almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ”

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Webcast interview from the Government 2.0 Summit

I’ve been attending the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington this week, along with a lot of friends and colleagues from various spots in Silicon Valley, the international tech world, and federal, state, or local government agencies. If you want to follow along on Twitter, there’s a great number of attendees posting real-time notes and comments throughout the sessions.

Over the past couple of months I’ve participated with many colleagues planning the kick-off Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase, which highlighted fantastic new-technology projects from government agencies across the country. One of the great projects showcased is www.NeighborsforNeighbors.org, a collaborative website of rich services run by Joseph Porcelli (on Twitter he’s @josephporcelli). Among the other services on the site is a webcast series of great interviewst all levels, from across the country. , and this afternoon I sat down for a chat.

You can watch it below, on their site, or over on the archived kyte.tv site  - lots of laughs as we talk about my varied experiences in government, and why Microsoft is focusing intently on enabling enterprise Government 2.0 capabilities.  Fun stuff!

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