Microsoft Research Inspires. PDC Day #3 Recap

To read my PDC recaps from Days 1 & 2, click on the links below:

Rick Rashid, Senior VP of Microsoft Research gave the keynote today.  In his keynote, he proceeded to review the MSR organization and went down a lengthy resume of MSR accomplishments, areas of investigation and research, and strategic direction moving forward.  In his opening remarks Rashid briefly discussed the history of MSR, which was founded in 1991, and started by focusing on MSR’s Mission Statement:

  • Expand the state of the art in each of the areas in which we (Microsoft) do research
  • Rapidly transfer innovative technologies into Microsoft products
  • Ensure that Microsoft products have a future

Rashid went on to discuss MSR’s organizational structure and focused on his mission to structure MSR in such a way that it is optimized to get maximum innovation from the researchers and the vast research community in which we participate.  As a part of this strategy, he highlighted the following characteristics of the MSR structure:

  • University organizational model – The reporting structure is flat with critical mass groups who work on key research areas
  • Open research environment – Rashid believes that this contributes to MSR’s ability to aggressively publish research results in peer-reviewed literature, a lot of which is posted on the Microsoft Research website.  As a part of this open environment, MSR entertains frequent visitors (researchers) from around the world from both the educational, government, and private sector. MSR also hosts daily seminars on research activities and findings
  • Strong ties to University Research – MSR has a strong reputation in the University circuit and has several partnerships with leading universities for joint research activities.  University graduate students have also come out to Microsoft campuses and have worked directly with MSR personnel on critical research areas around next generation computing and how it can have profound impact on issues that plague our society, most notably Healthcare and  the environment

Interesting MSR Facts

  • MSR consists of 850 PHD researchers
  • The 2nd largest MSR lab facility (with Redmond being the first) is in Beijing China
  • MSR also has opened large facilities in Cambridge England and Cambridge, MA (USA)
  • MSR recently opened a new lab facility in Bangalore, India
  • MSR continues to grow a strong presence in Silicon Valley
  • MSR ranks HIGHER in research than IBM, Bell Labs, and University of Washington in  the field of computer science & engineering
  • MSR has over 4000 peer-reviewed publications
  • MSR participates in community leadership activities and hold positions in professional societies and have been quoted or have written articles in leading tech journals

MSR and the Academic Community

  • MSR participates in the academic research community through extensive publications and conference participation as well as participation in professional service activities with organizations such as DARPA, NSF, and NRC
  • MSR participates in numerous joint research projects

MSRs Involvement in our Microsoft Product Strategy
Rashid went on in his keynote to talk about how MSRs research efforts drive the innovation in what we build/ship/sell to our customers.  As a part of the product strategy, MSR serves the following roles:

  • Providing focused technology transfer effort (Program management team with sole focus on technology transfer)
  • Researchers who sit on product incubation “advisory” boards
  • “Mindswaps” – joint product/research offsites
  • Joint product/research teams.  The results of these joint teams have been rather impressive.  Some of their output have included:
    • Clear Type
    • Data Mining (originally introduced in SQL 2000)
    • Natural Language and Speech (Microsoft Office)
    • Tablet PC
  • Facilitation of *Incubation* projects that have turned into shipping products.  For example, MSRs work in robotics yielded Microsoft Robotics Studio, the Concurrency Control Runtime and the Distributed Software Services Toolkit

What’s MSRs Value to Microsoft?
Rashid drove home some basic points around why Microsoft continues to invest in research.  He summarized MSRs “Business Value” in basically 3 bullets:

  • Source of IP and new product technologies – MSR generates roughly 25% of the company’s patents
  • Problem solving of some of the most difficult computer science problems – MSR has the ability to bring smart people to bear rapidly on hard problems confronting products, product groups, or the company
  • Act as an early warning system – MSR provides ears to the ground in new areas across a broad range of technologies and can help steer Microsoft’s strategic directions as to what we should be focusing on over the next few years and beyond

Rashid and his team have established an ecosystem where we address key challenges affecting our future as a company, and as a society.  He summarized the challenges as follows:

  • Challenges in software engineering and system design
  • Challenges in Healthcare
  • Challenges with energy consumption and environmental issues
  • Challenges in Education
  • Challenges in natural Interaction with the PC

As it relates to challenges in Software Engineering, Rashid focused on a number of different areas that MSR researchers have been exploring.  One project in particular that MSR has been focusing on is the SLAM project.  This project was aimed at verifying properties of software using a technique whereby a hardware or software design satisfies a formal specification, which typically (in computer science terms) is a temporal logic formula.  Not to get too deep in the weeds here, dear reader, but needless to say they’re doing some really impactful stuff as it relates to how software is/should be developed.   It’s important to note that SLAM was productized in the Windows Vista driver verifier feature and will be further enhanced in Windows 7.

MSR is also involved in research projects that help fuel our S+S and cluster computing initiatives, and were deeply involved in the creation of the Windows Azure Services platform.

Energy Efficient Computing
Feng Zhao, a Prinicpal Researcher with MSR who focuses on Sensor Networks, took the stage and discussed our investments in sensor technology, with the intent of decreasing energy consumption and promote more energy efficiency in phones, servers, and data centers.  Zhao demoed a sensor device that detects temp/humidity and monitoring environmental conditions in the LA convention facility using a “SensorMap” portal application that collected environmental data and displayed via a dynamic visual display (leveraging Virtual earth).  Data collected by sensors are stored in the cloud.  NASA has made use of the SensorMap application

MSRs Efforts in Healthcare
MSR has been involved in a considerable amount of research to help leading research institutions tackle critical areas in the area of Healthcare.  Some of these efforts include:

  • Unlocking the mystery of your genes for personalized medicine
  • Fighting HIV/AIDS through Machine Learning.  This was a pretty interesting effort because they are using the algorithms we use in detecting SPAM to predictably determine the patterns of HIV.

MSRs Efforts in Education
MSR has been involved in a number of educational initiatives around the globe.  Here’s just a few of the things they’ve been involved in:

  • MSR supports a center for collaborative technologies at U of W
  • MSR has created a Tablet-Based Computing (
  • Robotics for the computer science classroom
    • Center for Personal Robotics in Education – Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College. Robots in core CS curriculum
  • World Wide Telescope (new release – “Equinox” Beta release)

Boku – Lightweight Programming For Kids
Matthew MacLaurin, Principal Program Manager at MSR, took the stage to talk about the Boku project.  He led into is presentation keying off of Rashid’s earlier comments that programming should be viewed as a “life skill”, and as such, we should look to engage our youth in software development/design and dymistify the arcane approach to software construction and relay it in such a way that our youth can easily grasp the concepts and become tomorrow’s computer scientists.

Boku is a game authoring system for children (and the childlike) centered on a novel visual programming system designed around a concurrent rule system.  The core of the Boku project is the programming user interface.  The language is simple and entirely icon-based.  Programs are composed of pages, broken down into rules.

The Boku language is designed specifically for game development.  Programs are expressed in physical terms, using concepts like vision, hearing, and time to control character behavior.  While not general purpose as classical programming languages, Boku can express advanced game design concepts in a simple, direct, and intuitive manner.

Below are some screenshots of the environment:

Game Load / Community Screen

NOTE: Before you start hitting the MSR website and searching for the application, Boku won’t be available until early next year 🙂

SecondLight – Interaction Beyond The Surface
One of the other key highlights of the keynote was concerning a new type of surface computer, called SecondLight, which allows for interaction above the standard Microsoft Surface unit into the *real world*.  During a rather compelling demonstration, MSR researchers demonstrated a prototype of a next generation surface unit where you could virtually “lift” objects off the surface and have them projected on other objects.  Through special infrared cameras, additional data encoded behind objects displayed on the surface table (data mind you, that was “naked” to the human eye) was shown being projected on tracing paper plastic lenses, etc being held over the unit (e.g. NOT LYING FLAT ON THE TABLE :-))  It’s rather difficult to put this particular demonstration into words.  This is just something you’ll have to see for yourself! 🙂

The MSR keynote capped of a week of some very good presentations from our executive leadership.  It showcased that we are truly committed to moving computing forward with Microsoft being the leader of this “innovation movement”.

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