Microsoft demos innovations at annual TechFest

Microsoft researchers showed off technology that can make it easier to determine who is speaking when listening to a conference call

If you've ever been frustrated with trying to determine who is speaking when listening to a conference call, help may be at hand.

At the annual TechFest event, Microsoft researchers showed off technology that can make it easier to notice when different like-sounding speakers are talking.

[ Also at TechFest: "Microsoft trying out netbook processors in datacenters" | Get the analysis and insights that only Randall C. Kennedy can provide on PC tech in InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog. And download our free Windows performance-monitoring tool. ]

Current audio conferencing systems mix all audio into a single channel, said Zhengyou Zhang, principal researcher at Microsoft Research. The system he helped devise uses different audio channels so that each person's voice sounds like it is coming from a different direction. Listening to a sample prerecorded audio conference in headphones, it was easy to tell that two different men with similar voices were indeed two people, because one man's voice sounded like it was coming from the left and the other from the right.

The audio conference technology was one of many projects put on display by Microsoft’s researchers at TechFest. Technologies developed within Microsoft Research sometimes make it into commercial products, but not always.

Other technologies at TechFest came from Microsoft's Cambridge facility, where researchers are working on systems designed to help people better organize and access photographs and other personal information.

David Kirk showed off what looks like a variation of the Surface tabletop computer. It’s smaller and built into a wood table. While it uses infrared light to detect movement on the screen, like the Surface, its lights shine from the sides rather than beaming through the screen.

Users can dump photos from their digital cameras onto the computer and use the touch screen to arrange them into boxes. They can also place objects, such as mementos from a vacation, onto the screen, and a built-in overhead camera snaps a photo of the objects. That way people can integrate not just digital photos but physical items into the machine, Kirk said.

He and his team have built three of the tables and placed them in people’s homes to study how they use them. One newly married couple had a collection of notes that people who attended their wedding had written on the wrappers of a piece of chocolate left at each person’s table. They were worried about how to best keep the notes and used the Microsoft device to take photos of each piece of paper and collect them, along with wedding photos, in a file.

Another family found that their 6-year-old son liked to take photos of his toy dinosaurs, arranging them in collections.

One of Kirk's colleagues has helped develop TimeCard, software that could help people develop a timeline history of their families or themselves. Richard Banks, the researcher demonstrating the project, showed off one that he'd created for his grandfather, who had been in the Royal Air Force during the second World War. The timeline included not just photos of his grandfather, but also general historical information about what was going on in the world at the same time as each photo was taken.

Banks envisions creating a more standardized way for people to create such a timeline for themselves, maybe collecting items that a person writes on Twitter or on blogs and helping to collate those items in a coherent way that shows what kinds of things were important to the person at a certain time period.

Another new technology on display at TechFest was a social e-mail program. "We'e working on the problem of e-mail overload and rethinking the way we think of e-mail," said Shane Williams, a researcher at Microsoft.

He demonstrated a Web-based e-mail program, though its features could be built into a desktop e-mail product, that organizes e-mail around social groups. It examines who sends the e-mails and who is in the CC line and logically builds a group of people. End-users can tweak the groups too.

Users can name each group, which appear in boxes along the left column of the screen. Each box shows small thumbnail photos of each person and the subjects of recent e-mails from people in the group.

A "closet" at the bottom of the column contains groups that haven’t been active recently, but those groups pop up in the visible list above once they come in use again.

When a user clicks on a message, it displays the content in two columns, similar to a magazine page, Williams said. If the user starts typing, she will automatically be writing a reply in a small box on the screen, without having to open a separate window. Also, impending calendar items appear at the top of the screen, so that the user doesn't have to switch to calendar view.

If this e-mail program were used in an enterprise, it could pull in information from SharePoint, such as a sender's IM status and position in the organization.

Researchers showed off a variety of other new technologies as well, including one that loads hundreds of books on DVDs, aimed at serving as an educational tool in emerging markets. A more sophisticated thesaurus program would do a better job suggesting alternate phrases for writers. An image-centric ad platform would let companies buy advertisements based on the content in photographs taken by people.

One of the more unusual projects lets a user write letters in the air, and a computer, equipped with a standard Web cam, recognizes the letters. It doesn't require a special handheld device; the program will recognize anything with color in a user's hand. Researcher Lei Ma used an apple to trace letters in the air. The application could be useful with interactive TV applications, particularly in Asian countries where languages sometimes have thousands of characters, making on-screen keyboards less useful to people, he said.

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