A Technical Computing revolution

Last week I enjoyed hosting a visit in Redmond from Chris Kemp, NASA’s new Chief Technology Officer for information technology. Our discussions were with folks from the Windows Azure cloud computing team, the high-performance computing and large-data folks, and our Extreme Computing Group. I smiled when Chris said he was a fan of the book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, written by Microsoft’s Gordon Bell and colleague Jim Gemmell. (I wrote about their research projects in an earlier post, Total Recall for Public Servants.)

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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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Total Recall for Public Servants

MyLifeBits is a Microsoft Research project led by the legendary Gordon Bell, designed to put “all of his atom- and electron-based bits in his local Cyberspace….MyLifeBits includes everything he has accumulated, written, photographed, presented, and owns (e.g. CDs).” 

SenseCam - Click to enlarge

Among other technical means, Bell uses the SenseCam, a remarkable prototype from Microsoft Research.  It’s a nifty little wearable device that combines high-capacity memory, a fisheye lens passively capturing 3,000 images a day, along with an infrared sensor, temperature sensor, light sensor, accelerometer, and USB interface. My group has played with SenseCam a bit, and shared it with quite a few interested government parties and partners. More info on SenseCam here, and more on its parent Sensors and Devices Group in MSR.  

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Why a Cloudlet Beats the Cloud for Mobile Apps

Sure, you know cloud computing. You also know a bit about so-called “private clouds,” which enterprises and government agencies are exploring as an option to combine the power and scale of virtualized cloud architectures with security and control over data.

But what do you know of Cloudlets? They may just be a key to the future of mobile computing.

That’s a possible conclusion from the results so far of a Microsoft Research family of projects called MAUI, short for Mobile Assistance Using Infrastructure. The MAUI approach is to enable a new class of CPU-intensive, and data-intensive, applications for mobile devices – but enable them in a new way.  Today’s mobile devices can’t run such apps, at least not well. And if they stick to the cloud they may never do so.

I’ve just read a fundamental MAUI paper published last month in the IEEE’s Pervasive Computing journal: “The Case for VM-based Cloudlets in Mobile Computing” (November 2009, co-authored by MSR’s Paramvir Bahl along with colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University, AT&T Research, and Lancaster University).

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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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Once you get past Filter Failure

How do intelligence analysts handle the long-discussed problem of information overload? (The same question goes for information workers and government data of any kind.)

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The So-Called Secret Courier Video

What is the “user interface of tomorrow”? In the past I have chronicled some cool Microsoft Research prototypes of flexible touchscreen interfaces - and even touchless interfaces!  And now this month one of my friends in MSR, Mary Czerwinski, has written in Venture Beat that “those types of interfaces could be the tip of the iceberg”:

A whole new set of interfaces are in the works at various stages of research and development… I have colleagues working on tongue-based interaction, bionic contacts lenses, a muscle-computer interface, and brain-computer interaction.” – Mary Czerwinski

Not bad! But working devices along those lines are several years away, so for now we’re stuck with the tablet form-factor as the primary basis for natural input. I’ve used a tablet PC on and off for the past five years, happily. My wife now uses an HP tablet.

So I’ve been eagerly following the blogosphere’s hyperventilation about the much-rumored, still-unseen Apple tablet computer, which has been variously described as being close to launch, far from launch, and non-existent.

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The Cyber Trough of Disillusionment

I’ll call the moment: the cyber security field is now past its giddy buzzword peak.

Gartner is well known for preparing “hype cycle” analysis of technology sectors, as in their recent publication of the 2009 “Hype Cycle for Social Software.” That report got a lot of attention on Twitter and in blogs, naturally; social medians are nothing if not self-reflective regarding their community. I thought an interesting take was by an IBM developer, who compared the 2008 version against the new one, measuring the changes in predicted “time to maturity” for individual technologies, and thereby coming up with something like a measure of acceleration. By that measure, individual blogging and social search made the most rapid gains.

But I notice something missing on the full list of 79 Gartner hype cycle reports: there’s not one about “cyber security.”

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Navigating Indoors Without GPS

Here’s a nifty demo of a very small piece of software, that could find daily use for large numbers of people in any large enterprise, or any shopper in a mall – anywhere someone’s wandering in a large building or complex looking for a specific office, conference room, storefront, or location – especially indoors where GPS is of no use.

It’s called GoMap, and I think it could have great applicability for government complexes, which have lots of rabbit-warren hallways, lots of constantly-reassigned workers, and lots of visitors.

I missed GoMap’s first public unveiling today because I’m on the east coast this week, mostly for the Cybersecurity “Leap Ahead” conference in Arlington Virginia which wrapped up today; I will write about the conference separately.

But that meant I had to miss the bar-camp-style WinMoDevCamp today on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. There was a lot of buzz around this DevCamp, and there’ll be others in 6 more cities soon (Austin, London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and Toronto) as developers gear up for the upcoming release of the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system.  You can get registration information about the future events at the main WinMoDevCamp site (props to Todd Bishop on his TechFlash blog for highlighting the series).

The GoMap prototype makes innovative location-aware use of Microsoft Tag and TagReader (the high-capacity color barcodes developed by Microsoft Research), to solve the problem of having no GPS capability indoors  - check out the short video.

WinMoDevCamp is an indication that there’s a real explosion of app development going on in the Windows Mobile world, to match the equally exciting iPhone app and Android app activity. There’s been a feeling in Microsoft that our best advantages are the large installed base through third-party WinMo phone manufacturers, plus Microsoft’s long experience nurturing app developers on other platforms (.Net as a good example).  But I personally think that superior innovation is going to be the battleground, and we’re well positioned for that as well, with a lot of exciting things emerging from Microsoft Research and different advanced development labs in product groups. GoMap’s one example.

Not sure of the timeline for GoMap, but you can use TagReader right now, without the GoMap piece. It’s a free download on the Tag webpage, or you can get it on any mobile phone (yes, even the exploding iPhone) at http://gettag.mobi.

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