Microsoft's research labs offer freebies

Many projects at TechFest are simply research concepts that will never come to market, but some are being made publicly available.Images: From pets to panoramas at TechFestVideo: Next wave of tech at Microsoft?
Written by Ina Fried, Contributor
REDMOND, Wash.--While many of the projects at Microsoft's TechFest are simply research concepts that will never come to market, a couple of the ideas are being made publicly available--for free.

The goal of the internal science fair, which runs through Thursday at Microsoft's headquarters, is to give product teams inside the company a chance to see what the research unit is up to and, ideally, to have some of those ideas find their way into products. But in some cases, outsiders need not wait that long to get their hands on the latest from Microsoft's labs.

One such project is called HD View, and is aimed at making it easier to view very large images via the Web. Initially, viewers see a smaller view of the whole image, which can hold millions or billions of pixels. Users can then zoom in on the image and scroll around, much as they might if they had the full image on their computer. But only about a million pixels need be downloaded at any given time.

Images: From pets to panoramas at TechFest

It's similar to an existing commercial effort, dubbed Zoomify. A key difference, Microsoft said, is that an HD View image can have different perspectives at various resolutions. Once zoomed in, for example, a user can look up or down, rather than just scrolling a flat image.

"It's just doing the right thing," researcher Michael Cohen said Tuesday, demonstrating the technology. On its Web site, Microsoft shows the technology using several massive images, but the company has code that people can download to use on a Web site with their own images. Cohen said the technology is even useful for the types of 8-megapixel images coming out of today's consumer cameras.

A few booths over, researcher Jeremy Elson showed off Asirra, a tool designed to replace that annoying distorted text that Web site visitors are often forced to decode to prove that they are human. The big problem is that computers are getting better at being able to decode such images.

So researchers at Microsoft tried to think up a better idea. Their approach is based on the fact that computers still have a really tough time categorizing the subject of a photo. For example, a computer won't be able to tell more than 60 percent of the time whether a picture is a cat or a dog.

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Video: Get a glimpse of Microsoft's emerging technologies
Internal science fair shows what could be the next wave of tech at Microsoft.

But to really work as a large-scale method, Microsoft needed a huge library of cat and dog photos. That's when John Douceur came up with the idea of partnering with Petfinder.com, a site that aims to help pets get adopted. In exchange for giving Microsoft access to their photos, the software maker includes a little "adopt me" link so that with one click of the mouse, a user can be united with a cat or dog in need of a home.

While the researchers will no doubt be talking up the project to MSN folks Wednesday and Thursday, the tool is available to any Web site. Even Google or Yahoo could theoretically adopt the technology.

The Asirra booth also prompted the following warning that greeted people as they entered TechFest:

"One of the TechFest 2007 demo booths...features a pair of live cats," read the message on the door of the Microsoft Conference Center where the event was being held. "Those prone to asthma or allergic reactions to cat dander are advised to take appropriate precautions."

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