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Microsoft Research and their secret projects

Over the years, Microsoft has dominated the marketplace with some ground breaking products. Not just Windows or Office, but spreading to the web, communications, education and research.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on
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Over the years, Microsoft has dominated the marketplace with some ground breaking products. Not just Windows or Office, but spreading to the web, communications, education and research. But most people will know they work behind the scenes on seemingly insignificant stuff, that may or may not end up being the next core part of our everyday lives.

Alright I'll hold my hands up and say, they're not secret projects as such. They're just not very widely known about and it saddens me that this technology gets built up and wasted. Microsoft should really learn from their mistakes. Because Microsoft actively engages with entrepreneurs and startups to integrate their technologies, as mentioned by Andy McLoughlin from Huddle.net, if you can get your hands on these technologies as a student, your potential is limitless.

Whilst I'm out with the rest of England, celebrating essentially the world's biggest counter-terrorism operation, I'll throw in some examples of potential next-generation software which is currently being worked upon.

3D Face Modellingis something that's been worked on for a while. By throwing in a 2D portrait photo, the engine will be able to output a full 3D image of that face. You may think, "hey, what's the point?", avatars and graphics are what they boast about. With enough applied mathematics and rendering options, the next generation medical students and forensic anthropologists could enhance their work to a level not seen before.

The Interactive Image Cutout tool could really evolve how we manipulate and edit our photos. Being able to physically take out an object from an image now takes time, care, precision and skill; even then with shadows, lighting and other objects in the way - it makes things very difficult. From the user guide:

The interactive image cutout tool

  • Discerns image edges, colour similarities, and grading information for quick and easy editing.
  • Works even if the cutout area’s foreground and background colors are very similar.
  • Quickly separates the cutout from the background to produce high quality intermediate results.
  • Enables you to easily refine the cutout’s boundary by using fewer polygon vertices.
  • Provides instant feedback on cutout area results through fast image processing.

And from a file size of around 325kb, it's almost terrifying to think that a small proportion of that is the user interface, and the rest is pure mathematics.

WiFi Location Determination or "Locadio" can see through walls. There's little surprise there as wireless signals, phone signals and gamma can travel through walls, but having the ability to locate objects and people is something else. From the Intellectual Property website:

"Locadio's signal strength-based technology makes it possible to locate objects inside buildings. Requiring no specialized hardware [runs on what you already have], it adds value to the existing IEEE 802.11 wireless data network. The technique incorporates probabilistic models of motion, walking speed, and building layout [clever guess work, algorithms and more maths], which significantly improve the precision of location detection without increasing calibration effort. Interpolating calibration information from a sparse set of initial calibration nodes [getting data from many places; triangulation, if you will] decreases the calibration effort by half, without compromising precision."

This technology actually blows my mind a little bit. Although, whilst it still amazes me I can watch BBC News on my phone, using wireless waves from many angles to blast a building and determining physical locations of other wireless devices, as a "indoor GPS" if you will - it's witchcraft at best. Words cannot describe the potential of this technology.

With just a few mentioned, there are hundreds, if not thousands of mini-projects on the Microsoft Research website, which I just don't feel people mention enough. My friend and wider-blogging symposium colleague, Long Zheng, often throws in an MSR mention with the things they are coming out with. It's funny how these "products" have all hit the virtual shelves and the public hand after these moments in the spotlight.

But with weather simulators which can add rust, dirt splashes and cracks to objects over a period of time, as well as river simulators which model and render river flow through landscapes, and Microsoft Touchlight which first made its appearance in 2006. Even existing projects which have seen the light of day like ConferenceXP and ClearType, which has enhanced our viewing for years now, are all there and available.

Microsoft Research and their weathering tool

Who wouldn't want to work at Microsoft Research? If you nay to that, who wouldn't want to play with some of these mind blowingly cool things?

Whilst it's not a heavily publicised site, the Microsoft Intellectual Property Licensing site, although has an incredibly dull name, contains the key to some of the most impressive theories, concepts, and developing technologies which I have seen in a very long time. Microsoft Research comes up with them, the Microsoft IPL gets them out into the world. Talk to your university today about getting access to these.

Update: some problems behind the scenes caused the podcast player to display; only just got rid of it. The video links have now gone as a result, but all the other links are there.

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