10 Cool Projects from Microsoft's Research Arm

A look at 10 Microsoft Research projects that have long-term potential.

A common knock against Microsoft is that it’s “not cool.” That message seems to have missed the Microsoft Research team, whose behind-the-scenes efforts bring to life what was previously limited only by the imagination. Here are 10 Microsoft Research projects that have long-term potential.

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Status: Currently running in “more than a dozen homes”; under evaluation by academic researchers at MIT, University of Washington, others.

Imagine being able to walk into a room that prepares itself for your presence. As soon as you open the door, a lamp, the television, and the air conditioning all turn on automatically before you’ve even entered. With a smartphone and a cloud connection, Microsoft’s HomeOS does just that. Using a Windows phone, the technology enables the user to set up a list of rules by which Internet-connected appliances in a given room will behave in the future, i.e. the lamp turns on when the door opens, and so on.

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High-fidelity facial animation capturing

Status: Current Microsoft Research project.

Have you been waiting for technology that can capture and reproduce every single detail of your face? No? Well, some people might be interested, such as animators, filmmakers and video game developers. By attaching the Hellboy-esque dots to the subject’s face, the high-fidelity facial animation capturing technology combines 3D scanning and motion capture technology to reproduce every muscle, twitch, line and wrinkle of the face.

Touchless Interface in Surgery

Status: Under development in collaboration with Lancaster University, Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge (U.K.), King’s College London, and Guys and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Through the use of an Xbox Kinect, Microsoft Research has developed a touchless option for surgeons to analyze and prepare for upcoming operations on a virtual sample. The interactive interface allows the surgeon to pan, zoom, and rotate an image of a tendon or organ to be operated on, as well as measure it and lock the image from movement for discussion with fellow surgeons.

Kinect in the dark

Status: Current Microsoft Research project.

Based on the same technology as the Touchless Interface in Surgery, Kinect in the dark focuses on using the audio sense to direct human movement in the dark, when visibility is no longer of use. The Kinect monitors the user’s movement and plays music to give the user an idea of his location in the room. For example, as the video shows, when the user moves her right hand further away from her body, the music grows louder in her right ear. So far, the project has found that the need for reliance on a virtual assistant, when eyesight is limited, for example, has actually made computer-to-human interaction more natural to the user.

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Status: Current Microsoft Research project.

IllumiShare uses a webcam and a projector to enable real-world, remote collaboration. The camera captures a surface area provided by both users and exchanges them with the projector. An image of anything that appears on one surface area is reproduced on the other. As the video shows, IllumiShare carries big potential for education, such as remote tutors looking to help students with their homework, as well as design work.

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Status: Current Microsoft Research project.

Again using Kinect technology, the Holoflector also consists of a mirror and an LCD panel. The latter projects animation onto anyone or anything held in front of the mirror. Everything from the appearance of the person in front of the mirror to the environment around him can be enhanced and animated, with the resulting image displayed on the mirror. Windows Phone brings another layer, as the Holoflector recognizes it as a remote sensor of sorts, opening new interactive possibilities.

WorldWide Telescope

Status: Presented at February’s WorldWide Telescope Day event in Moscow; still under development.

Albeit years later than Google Maps, Microsoft’s work with mapping has been quite impressive. The WorldWide Telescope will bring users from a distant view of Earth to their backyards within seconds (I found my Boston apartment in less than 30). Beyond that, though, the WorldWide Telescope provides similar mapping capabilities in astrological and interplanetary settings, complete with pre-loaded guided tours that could have a significant impact on education.

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Status: Available for trial  

As exploratory technology continues to gather more research information in new areas, research teams will need to find the most effective use of that data. With Layerscape, large sets of data can be put to use and visualized. An example in the video was the use of 150 years’ worth of earthquake data in the Western United States, projected onto a map in chronologically representative blips. Moving ahead, the researchers working on Layerscape have their eye toward the ocean and plan to establish familiarity in an area in which “up to today we’ve only been very occasional visitors and tourists.”

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Status: Available in Beta; still in development.

Making detailed weather information more accessible, FetchClimate allows users to simply drag a box over an area of a map and get a customized snapshot of the climate there. Through a combination of Azure and Silverlight, FetchClimate can gather large sets of weather data for a given area, complete with differences in time and the impressive ability to get researchers to submit an estimate of error. While many in the meteorology field likely already have this capability, FetchClimate is available for free and is accessible in a browser, catering to those in education and academics, as well as anyone who may have a passing interest.

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Status: “Ready for mass consumption,” but set for regular, consistent iterations.

A by-product of Big Data, Big History is the study of time going all the way back to the Big Bang. Using a scale that begins 13.7 billion years ago, ChronoZoom breaks up history by thresholds that represent moments in time. Treshhold 1, the Big Bang, is detailed with documents, images, and videos, known as artifacts, as well as a bibliography so the source of that information can be traced. Customizable narrations are especially useful add-ons for those in education or academia, allowing professors to provide their own interpretation of a window in time.