Microsoft shows off collaborative search tools

Microsoft showed off a collaborative search project during its annual conference highlighting internal research.

During an annual conference to display internal research, Microsoft demonstrated a project designed to help people collaborate on search.

After downloading a small program, a SearchTogether user will see a sidebar in their browser where they can sign in using their Live ID and invite any buddy to join in a collaborative search. A drop-down menu shows collaborations the user might have in progress.

After choosing one collaboration, a user can view the query history of each collaborator. Clicking on a query reveals the results in the main view of the browser. That eliminates multiple people conducting repeat searches, said Meredith Morris, a Microsoft researcher who demonstrated the software.

Users can also do a split search, which means that one collaborator does a search and the results are split between the two collaborators. Each can investigate their set of results so they don't duplicate work.

The users can also write comments in a small field attached to an individual Web page. In the sidebar, users can view sites that their collaborators have also viewed and read their comments about the site.

The software could help people in their personal lives to plan holidays or research what kind of car to buy, Morris said. Similarly, it could be useful to workers who are researching a topic for a project.

SearchTogether is expected to be available soon as a free download in beta form.

Morris demonstrated the technology during TechFest, an annual event on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, where the research group shows off projects to employees.

Microsoft also discussed another collaborative search tool, CoSearch, that might be ideal for a group of students researching a subject using a shared computer. Using a cell phone connected to the computer via Bluetooth, students can view the page displayed on the computer on their phones and click on a link to open another page on their phones. They can also send search queries from their phones to the PC, and the queries are listed in a queue in a sidebar in the browser on the computer. Then the students can choose which query they want to explore on the shared PC.

Microsoft has also developed a way to plug multiple mice into a single computer. In a classroom, a teacher can project the computer screen and each student can have a mouse that has a unique cursor on the screen. It's another way to foster collaboration, particularly in situations where people must share computers, said Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft.

Microsoft has 800 researchers working in its research offices around the globe. The researchers follow a variety of projects, many of which become part of Microsoft commercial products.

The company believes in conducting such widespread research because "you don't know what the future is going to hold," said Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. "You don't know who your next big competitor is, or what the next big problem you're going to have to solve is." The group essentially produces a reservoir of technology that can be brought to bear when needed, he said.

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