Microsoft looks in the crystal ball

Tablet applications that quickly transform math formulas into graphics, and classrooms where professors can field instant-message queries from remote students: Both are leaping from the drawing board to reality in Microsoft Research projects.

And both were demonstrated for a crowd of developers at a keynote at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference on Wednesday. Rick Rashid, Microsoft Research senior vice president, described these projects and others.

Rashid, whose talk was titled "Are We Done Yet?" rejects some pundits' view that the heyday of computing advances is past.

"We're really at the beginning," he said. "We've barely scratched the surface of what can be done yet."

Microsoft Research employs more than 700 researchers, most of them working in Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, but others located in California, Beijing, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Focus on Graphics

Rashid said researchers are focusing on several areas, including greater exploitation of graphics processors.

"They're not just stunt boxes any more," he said, echoing a theme expressed earlier in presentations about the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. Longhorn features a sophisticated visual display technology, called Avalon, that will make greater use of graphics processors than do current versions of Windows.

Rashid said future graphics processors will handle tasks that typically fall to the CPU, such as font rendering. He demonstrated an application in which a graphics processor read data from a two-dimensional image and transformed it into a detailed, three-dimensional image.

In another demonstration, sophisticated rendering of water made the ocean in a gamelike scene of a figure standing on a beach look much more realistic. The wavelets reflected sunlight, and the reflection of the figure changed in intensity depending on the viewer's angle.

Another demo showed how the Sloan Digital Sky Survey uses database and Web service technology to help map and catalog the northern third of the detectable universe.

Rashid said Microsoft Research has done groundwork for the company's Smart Personal Objects (SPOT) initiative, in which objects such as wristwatches can receive news and alerts over a wide-area wireless network.

Glimpse of Future

Microsoft Research is also involved in "changing the learning experience," Rashid said. He showed a video of a math lecture as it might be given today and then as it might occur in the future. In the forecast, a teaching assistant filtered student queries submitted by instant message, and a remote student viewed a video of the lecture in the middle of the night.

In a final set of demonstrations, Microsoft technology evangelist John San Giovanni showed a pair of Tablet PC apps. Math Pad, developed at Brown University, creates graphics--including the movement of a pendulum and the path of a baseball hit by a bat--from handwritten drawings and equations in real time. Magic Paper, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, animates selected hand-drawn objects as they interact with stationary objects. The program identifies both the stationary objects and the moving objects by a stroke of the stylus.

"Microsoft Research believes that the student notebook of tomorrow is really this highly sophisticated, digital mobile device," San Giovanni said.

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