Microsoft poised to enter the kitchen

Move over, Jamie Oliver. Microsoft is entering the kitchen.

Fortunately, no food is involved. But a few of the technologies could mean that as you are chopping veggies or, for the less skilled, elbow-deep in suds washing dishes, you can keep tabs on loved ones with a glance.

The dashboard-like technologies were shown at the company's European Research and Innovation Day in Brussels last week. So far, none of the technologies are on the market, but they show how Microsoft is increasingly looking at the integration of mobile devices into home environments.

One of those is HomeNote, a flat-panel device that can receive text messages from mobile phones or be scribbled on with a stylus.

For demonstration purposes at the show, HomeNote used a Tablet PC - much too thick, but fine for a demo. Microsoft had a clean, foodless counter for HomeNote to sit on. HomeNote is always on, giving it a trait the company calls persistence, with messages in large, easy-to-read fonts.

Microsoft notes that the device allows people to communicate with a place rather than a person.

The device also fulfilled "awareness reassurance", another concept where people kneow where their family was and what they were doing, a psychologist and senior researcher with the Computer Mediated Living group at Microsoft Research Cambridge in England, Abigail Sellen, said.

HomeNote has been tested in five households in England -- one household didn't want to give it back, Sellen said.

The company's Whereabouts Clock reinforces the same concepts of persistence and reassurance, but uses a different graphical expression. Divided into three categories -- work, home and school -- the clock shows where a family member is as their mobile phone automatically delivers an Short Message Service (SMS) message when a person moves from one zone to the next. As an escape, users can turn that feature off.

The Whereabouts Clock is helpful, but a bit humorous. The round cells contain a small photo of each family member's head, and they float from section to section depending on their location. The clock takes on the feel of a giant mounted petri dish, with wobbly cells ready to subdivide. It's still in prototype, however.

Also in the early stages of development is Microsoft's Picture Bowl, a translucent, frosted glass bowl, a nonfunctional model of which was shown in Brussels. The aim is to have users place their digital camera or mobile device inside the bowl and have the contents wirelessly transmitted to memory.

The bowl is designed to be similar to the hodgepodge drawer in every kitchen, a place where items can be stashed without thought. Microsoft is studying how everyday surfaces and objects can be used with digital content intuitively, said Alex Taylor, a sociologist and researcher at the Cambridge facility.

"What we are really trying to do is exploit what we call the ecology of surfaces," Taylor said.

Using fingerprint recognition technology, it's envisioned a user can move photos around the bowl, transfer them into memory or simply withdraw the camera. That technology could also enable a person to move the photos from the bowl to a table, a flat surface more suited for organizing content.

There could be a Picture Bowl prototype in as soon as six months, Taylor said.

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Jeremy Kirk

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