The future according to Microsoft

4 Jan 2013

We explore Microsoft's research labs, with projects to improve gesture recognition and eliminate blue screen errors

When it comes to carrying out research, Microsoft plays the long game. At the moment, its researchers are working on sociological improvements to search, improving gesture recognition systems, and solving hundred-year-old mathematical theorems. While that may not sound like a route to improving software and hardware, give Microsoft some credit – it’s already reduced the occurrences of the Blue Screen of Death.

Academic focus

Microsoft Research (MSR) has 1,000 employees working globally, including 150 at its Cambridge lab taking up three floors on the grounds of the famous university, says Ken Woodberry, its deputy managing director. The goal of the lab isn’t product development, but furthering academic knowledge in fields such as computing science and mathematics.

“The people who work here would otherwise be academics,” says Woodberry. “We measure ourselves using a couple of metrics, but one of the primary ones is simply as though we were academics.” This means using “strong, peer-reviewed publications [and] status in the academic world”.

Of course, Microsoft funds its research department with a purpose: bringing innovations and expertise to the larger company, to help as needed.

The kind of people we tend to hire want to have an impact in the wider world, so they tend to work on problems that will eventually have some relevance to the company

“It’s entirely bottom-up; we hire smart people and let them do what they want to do. The kind of people we tend to hire want to have an impact in the wider world, so they tend to work on problems that will eventually have some relevance to the company.”

“It gives you a deep pool of expertise in areas that the company might not realise is important now, but will turn out to be important later on,” he says. “Search was something that famously we were a little late on, as a company. However, as soon as we realised we had to do something in that area, we had such a tremendous amount of expertise in the relevant computer science areas in MSR that it turned out they could turn their hands to building Bing.”

Digits

One area of focus for Microsoft’s Cambridge lab is gesture recognition – this is the firm that invented Kinect, after all. While the games console system didn’t actually stem from lab research, it was refined by it. The Kinect team ran into one or two problems, and they knew that MSR had expertise in computer vision and related areas. “We were able to help them solve those problems... we’re quite proud of that,” says Woodberry.

Another gesture-related hardware product is Digits. “It’s a wrist-worn device that lets you track the movements of your fingers – if you turned it into a product, it might be a watch. As you move your fingers, imagine you’re typing in mid-air; it can know exactly what your fingers are doing.”

The future according to Microsoft

The interaction works as though the user is wearing data-collecting gloves, analysing the hand’s movement in 3D using lasers and an infrared camera, and comparing that to a 3D model of a hand – the researchers spent hours staring at their own hands to try to understand how the system should work. It allows users to interact with a device anywhere – accessing a smartphone that’s still in your pocket, for example. Aside from interacting with mobile devices, Digits could also be combined with Kinect for console gaming: demo videos show users pointing at the screen and pulling their “trigger” finger to shoot.

The first versions of Digits were made using off-the-shelf parts, so it’s bulkier than the researchers would like, but by making specialised components, it could be the size of a wristwatch.

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