Research at Microsoft has a strong emphasis on advancing what it calls the consumerisation of IT. That approach helps it come up with new product releases and add capabilities to existing ones.

Software and services giant Microsoft is focussed on new ideas and research that will bring more advanced products to the consumer and enterprise market segments in an era of intensifying competition.

Fresh from its success with the Kinect for Xbox 360, a motion sensor device that holds the record for the fastest selling consumer electronics ever since it was launched, Microsoft has embarked on a ‘journey of innovation.' Kinect allows users to, among other things, play games using natural hand gestures and dance in synchronisation with screen figures.

The path ahead extends such intelligence for Microsoft. It envisions walls in homes and offices that turn into giant touchscreens and possess the capacity to see and hear, to create a world of devices that seamlessly combine work and leisure. Next generation products will use Natural User Interface technology more.

Microsoft reported growth in revenues in 2010 touching $62.5 billion, a seven per cent increase over the previous fiscal year. Operating income grew 18 per cent for this period, to $24.1 billion.

“We are focussed on the broadest demands of people. Our aim is to bring technology to the next billion. In the last 18 months we have had some great results, such as Kinect, in innovating for the future,” Steve Clayton, Microsoft Storyteller, told invited journalists at the headquarters of the company at Redmond, United States.

Kinect can see and hear

Kinect, which was launched on November 4 last year, has sold 10 million units and entered the Guinness Book as the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history, bar none. It features instant streaming of high definition 1080p content, reads body and facial gestures, and responds to voice commands. Adding to the existing feature set, “Avatar Kinect” will allow X Box Live users to chat and interact online socially in their ‘avatar' (a faithful and live animation character of themselves) starting in the first half of 2011. This forms part of Microsoft's approach to more closely integrate socialisation features into its products.

The Kinect console uses cutting-edge technology to read the movements of the person in front of it, even to the point of reproducing smiles, frowns and raised eyebrows and other facial expressions. So how does it do this?

The gadget uses its own light source to illuminate the room, whether it is pitch dark or brightly illuminated, to ‘understand' the surroundings. Alex Kipman, the Director of Incubation, says this technology enables one of the ‘eyes' of the Kinect to see the room, as a monochrome view. “Things that are super close to the sensor are white, super far away are black, we file both of those numbers away and focus on the infinite shades of grey in between. For each shade of grey it maps a real-world coordinate, the distance, eyeball, a point. A colour eye, as in a phone or camcorder allows us to capture the user's memories, and enable video conferencing. It also recognises when you are walking towards the sensor,” Mr. Kipman says.

The ‘ears' of the device sit underneath the sensor, and they are essentially four microphones in an asymmetrical configuration. This acoustic chamber is a first, a system created with a non push-to-talk feature. The environment is always-on and listening. So, in the living room when people are having fun creating a lot of ambient sounds, the sensor is still able to differentiate the speech of different individuals through robust voice recognition.

The ‘brains' of the Kinect are, like many other parts of the gadget, the product of work done in the field of machine learning at Microsoft Research. The research division of the company has centres around the world, including Bangalore. It taps the abilities of 850 Ph. Ds, or the equivalent of 20 major Computer Science laboratories.

Rick Rashid, Senior Vice-President, Microsoft Research, explains how Kinect depends heavily on machine learning to do what it is does. “It is not just tracking using its 3D camera. Actually there is a huge amount of machine learning technology that has been built-in that rapidly recognises which parts of the body are being looked at, at the instant time. So it recognises you when you are moving around, it does not confuse the person with your friend, or a dog that jumps at you,” Dr. Rashid adds.

Machine learning is increasingly a critical component in fields like business intelligence, where the system must be able to take streams of data, recognise properties of that data and infer information from it. It is a very broadly used technology of importance to companies such as Microsoft in many of its businesses.

The products of research have given computers the kind of sensors that humans have. The Kinect is an example. It has the ability to see in 3D space. It also has the ability to localise sound, and do some things that people can do in terms of recognising aspects of the environment. “We put in sensors such as accelerometers, magnetometers and other types of sensors into devices such as laptops, phones or others, giving computers some of the abilities that we have to interact with the world and integrate that information to solve tasks,” Dr. Rashid says.

Asked to predict the shape of computing in 2030, he says that would be hazardous, but the trend so far has been towards big developments in the field of machine translation. Large amounts of data produced by the growth of the Internet are now available to be processed, and the advances in machine learning have made this possible. This would evolve even more in coming years.

Office goes social

Research at Microsoft also has a strong emphasis on advancing what it calls the consumerisation of IT. That approach helps it come up with new product releases and add capabilities to existing ones such as Windows, Office and online services. Cloud computing, which has been growing in importance for over a decade, is set for explosive growth.

The economics of the cloud show that there is a steady and sharp fall in cost of computing power, measured in dollars per million instructions per second (MIPS). Over time, the biggest cost advantage has accrued to cloud computing, followed by client servers and mainframe computers.

These trends have resulted in Microsoft devoting resources to do more with its Azure platform. The concept helps divide infrastructure, platform and software into three distinct services, with cloud computing benefits. Customers derive greater levels of efficiency, guaranteed uptime and reduced cost. This model makes it possible for smaller companies to benefit from the high quality infrastructure and performance, without themselves having to make costly investments on hardware and software. They can manage short peaks in demand and opt for the ‘pay-as-you-go' model.

Small companies thus get access to high levels of computing power but only pay for actual use. High-quality animation, for example, becomes possible for small film companies who can use the Renderman software from Pixar on the cloud for a la carte assignments. Customers of a greenhouse gas emission analysis system, manageCarbon, do not have to consider local upgrades, and benefit from centralised updating. Automaker Toyota is rolling out a next-generation telematics service in partnership with Microsoft on Windows Azure that enables remote assessment of the performance of plug-in and hybrid cars starting 2012. “This also provides companies to look afresh at ‘cold cases,' or problems that defied solutions. With new technology and computing power, they have a better chance of solving old, unsolved cases,” says Jamin Spitzer, Senior Director of Platform Strategy.

Cloud power is also being harnessed to create new access to the key components of Microsoft Office. The flagship productivity suite will be available as Office365, a customisable, managed productivity service across devices including the mobile phone with guaranteed uptime. The key components of the Office suite, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Onenote are integrated with email, calendar, instant messaging and online meetings in the cloud version, now in beta.

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