10 Microsoft research projects

A sneak peek at 10 technologies developed in Microsoft's R&D labs

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Innovation is not just about cool new products. In technology, the best ideas require a) really smart people and b) lots of funding. For the past 33 years, Microsoft has had both in spades.

Yet, the precursor to any product release is the research and innovation that occurs before the first shipment to customers, that "pre-pre-alpha" stage where ideas are born.

In a recent two-day visit to Microsoft corporate headquarters, writer John Brandon met with several researchers working on new projects.

A few of these projects have already resulted in shipping products; others may never see the light of day -- they are meant as a proof of concept. Some could change how we do computing altogether. Yet, all of them are driven by bright thinkers who are working to solve real-world technical problems.

Codename: Eagle 1

In a major disaster, the fire and police departments, FBI, local government, and other public safety officials coordinate a search and rescue mission for survivors. Some of the techniques they use, such as closing roads and creating a chain of command, are tried-and-true measures.

However, one of the challenges is in coordinating the IT infrastructure needed for collaboration and communication. In most cases, even as recently as Hurricane Ike, this has been a major challenge, especially when any existing infrastructure has been damaged or is now inoperable. Barry is championing a new project called Eagle 1, which is a data visualization and mapping tool.

"After any major disaster, during the debrief, the first thing that always comes up is the communication and collaboration," he says. "Trying to get real-time information from all of the agencies involved to make life-saving decisions, the more quality information you can have, the better. There's a difference between information you can use and just raw data. The physical side is done to death, the hands-on side is mastered. The technology has been too slick and high-tech, but it has not been able to present the information in a form you can react to."

Eagle 1 pulls information from multiple databases and uses geospatial mapping technology to create an interactive map that would show, for example, all the schools, military bases, hospitals in the affected area. Plus it would show how many people are in the hospitals, current evacuation models and casualties or danger zones, even a plume model that could show where a gas leak is heading.

All the data is shown in a real-time interactive map using Virtual Earth, but the key is how Eagle 1 pulls data from many different sources (such as from both Oracle and SAP databases) and presents the results on one screen that can even run on a Microsoft Surface table. Barry said the process of configuring the data extractions will likely involve a team of Microsoft disaster specialists.

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John Brandon

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