It’s a Good Time To Be at Microsoft—A Report from TechFest

[Updated Feb. 25 with photos from TechFest 2009:]
Yesterday, I reported from Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA, on some high-level thoughts about the importance of corporate research from Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, and Rick Rashid, senior vice president and head of research. It’s TechFest week, which means tons of demos and meetings between Microsoft researchers, product groups, and top brass—see photos below and on the next page. (The event is restricted to Microsoft employees and invited guests.)

This annual event almost never happened. Rashid admits that TechFest was originally “something I wanted to avoid doing.” Before the inaugural fete in 2001, Rashid says, he had concerns about putting on such an extensive show. “I thought, ‘Boy, that’s going to be a lot of work. And who’s going to come?'” The first TechFest went on despite his objections, and the rest is history. I’ll give a rundown here of some of the most compelling demos I saw at TechFest 2009. They span the fields of Internet search, mobile imaging, advertising, and cleantech.

But first, another strategy issue. Given the economic climate that has resulted in Microsoft’s first major layoff, and the software company’s increasing competition with the likes of Apple, Google, and VMware, I wondered if there is more urgency these days to do research that pays off in products quickly—and whetTechFest 2009 demosher that has led to any subtle changes in Microsoft’s research strategy.

The short answer is no. I talked with Hsiao-Wuen Hon, the managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, who previously spent many years in Redmond. “The issue Microsoft should worry about is the future, the technology,” Hon says. “That’s what we need to work on. The short-term stuff, the financial crisis, no. We want to be in the position to continue to worry about what we should worry about—R&D. The company has a firm commitment to that.”

As for any immediate adjustments, Hon says he’s been asked not to spend more than what was previously budgeted, but that’s about it. “It’s a good time to be in Microsoft. On the outside, some companies need to fight for survival. Some companies need to go back to basics—most companies,” he says. “For me, the best thing is I get to continue working on what I was working on a year ago, six months ago—do not change course. And have confidence in the world that things will be getting better. It’s just a matter of time.”

Without further ado, here are some of the best demos I saw, projects that illustrate not only hot topics like energy conservation and search, but the global nature of Microsoft’s research efforts:

—Image-based advertising. Matt Scott from Microsoft Research Asia presented software that lets online advertisers bid on images instead of keywords. The idea is that a user could be shown ads from a restaurant if he or she browses a cooking magazine cover or a street photo of an eatery, say. Object-recognition algorithms (and computers’ understanding of images) are just becoming accurate enough to make this doable.

Mobile video stitching---Ayman Kaheel of Microsoft—Stitching mobile videos (left). You’ve probably heard of software that stitches photos together to make larger composite images and virtual environments (like Microsoft’s Photosynth). Now Ayman Kaheel and his team at Microsoft’s innovation center in Cairo, Egypt, have developed software that combines video streams captured from different cell phones into one higher-resolution video, all on the fly. It could potentially work for events shot from different angles, or for scenes of emergencies stitched together to aid rescuers.

—Web search summaries. Wei-Ying Ma and Zaiqing Nie of Microsoft Research Asia presented a new Internet search feature that represents Microsoft’s increased efforts in Web mining—digging up deeper connections between entities on Web pages so as to produce more useful search results. Their software, called Renlifang, creates a social-network graph for each person or entity you query, showing its connections to other people and organizations on the Web. It reminds me a bit of what Seattle startup Evri is doing to understanData center server with low-power processors (Microsoft)d the connections between Web pages.

—Low-power data centers (left). Janine Harrison and Jim Larus of Microsoft Research in Redmond presented an experimental prototype of a server running on energy-efficient netbook processors that give roughly 50 percent of the performance of the high-power processors currently used in Microsoft data centers—but at roughly 25 percent of the cost, and 15 percent of the power. The key to being able to handle high volumes of search queries with more limited hardware is algorithms that continuously predict the demand cycles so that processors can be switched off when they’re not needed.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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