Microsoft TechFest provides glimpse of future

Microsoft showcases identification, search technologies of the future

What do cats and Internet security have in common? If you had attended Microsoft's TechFest 2007 on Tuesday in Redmond, Washington, you would know.

At the event, which gave Microsoft Research a chance to demonstrate technologies that may one day turn up in Microsoft or third-party products, the research group out of Redmond, Washington, showed off Asirra (Animal Species Image Recognition for Restricting Access), a technology that uses the identification of photos of cats to ensure that humans, not interactive scripts, are accessing certain Web sites.

The problem with human interactive proof (HIP) technologies used today is that they often ask Web users to identify characters, not images, said Jeremy Elson, who works in the Redmond lab of Microsoft Research. HIP technologies are used by Web sites to ensure someone signing up for a blog or for a service is human, not a software program that wants to spam other users of that service or site. Some of the most common ones display a word that appears slightly distorted.

However, "it's easy for software to recognize characters" and pass for a human, Elson said. But the Microsoft Research team decided that a foolproof way to identify Web users as a humans versus software programs was to ask them to identify the difference between dogs and cats from images served up on a site.

The group teamed with Petfinder to use its database of photos of dogs and cats as the test images. In return, under each photo, an "adopt me" link can take the user to the Petfinder.com site so they can actually look into adopting the animal they have chosen.

Anyone interested in using Asirra can download it from this Web site and test the software, Elson said.

Asirra was one of a host of technologies out of Microsoft Research on display at TechFest Tuesday. It was the first time the event was open to the public, and more than 300 attendees -- comprised of press, analysts, bloggers and curiosity seekers -- spent the day on Microsoft's campus in Redmond hearing about and seeing firsthand the work of various research teams.

While not every project the 800 researchers spread across five Microsoft Research centres worldwide make it into Microsoft commercial products, researchers and Microsoft product teams are constantly in touch to see how they can work together, said Andrew Herbert, a Microsoft distinguished engineer and director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.

"Technology transfer is a contact sport," he said. "You need a lot of contact [with product teams], and you make close contact."

Although there are about five reviews of Microsoft Research projects per year by top Microsoft product leaders -- including Chairman Bill Gates -- sometimes it's "simply persistence" that gets technology created by Microsoft Research into a product, said Kevin Scofield, general manager of Microsoft Research.

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