Tomorrow’s World

Innovation doesn't come cheaply and new technology is usually the result of a combination of billions of dollars of annual investment and the hard work of many brilliant minds. On visiting Microsoft's Research Centre in the UK to see where minds and money come together, Windows found itself in tomorrow’s world.

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By  Vijaya George Published  May 28, 2002

I|~||~||~|Bill Gates once said: “We’re building the technology that will enable PCs to see, listen, speak and learn so that people can interact with their computers as naturally as they interact with other people.”

A bold claim perhaps, but, as usual, he has put his money where his mouth is: Microsoft spends nearly $5 billion a year on basic research and product development, a sum that will increase in coming years, and it looks like a number that is set to get bigger as time goes on, if the success of the software giant’s research facility in Cambridge, England is anything to go by.

Microsoft Research (MSR) was founded in Redmond in 1991 and has grown quickly in recent years, with the new offices in Cambridge arriving five years ago. The research worked on by MSR has concentrated on three main area: using computers to extend what people can do; improving digital music, videos and images; and building the company’s .Net vision of computing services available over the Internet.

Among the technologies, the Redmond lab has displayed in recent times include a handheld computer that understands which way is up and where it’s being touched, technology that lets it redirection its display according to how it’s held or understand when a person is, holding it like a cell phone to give dictation. Then there’s the automated bug detection that helped make Windows 2000 less crash-prone, which is being used in all other Microsoft product lines; video compression technology that’s less error-prone than the prevailing MPEG-4 standard; software that’s designed not to sap people’s emotion when creating narrated slide shows so sharing photos online is more like the storytelling that accompanies the viewing of traditional photo albums and software that can reconstruct 3D images from a few still photos.

Research spending has surprisingly drawn criticism in the past for the software giant, but Bill Gates has defended his policies in recent months:
“The really big advances come from long-term research investments,” he said. “We think corporations worldwide should invest more in research, both for themselves and for society overall.”

Microsoft Research is dedicated to solving these problems by doing the following: always looking five to ten years beyond the current product development cycles to identify and invent key technologies that will impact users in the future; working closely with product development to share short-term results and incorporate those results into Microsoft products; continuing to contribute and collaborate with the entire research community in an effort to expand the circle of knowledge.

||**||II|~||~||~|Today, research projects range from artificial intelligence and inventing new ways for people to interact with computers to improving programming languages and optimising software tools so developers can work more efficiently. Regardless of what end of the spectrum they inhabit, all projects within Microsoft Research are aimed at simplifying and enhancing the way people interact with technology. Though most of Microsoft’s researchers are focused on long-term goals extending far beyond the current product cycles, their close interactions with the rest of Microsoft allow them to share short-term results with the product development groups. In fact, many major Microsoft products on the market today, from CD-ROM game titles to enterprise wide system software, use technology or tools created by Microsoft Research. In several cases, researchers have even followed their ideas to product development.

The man charged with the responsibility of running MSR Cambridge is Professor Roger Needham, who built the Cambridge computer department’s global reputation, and was founding managing director of Microsoft Research’s Cambridge operation in 1997. So far, Needham, has recruited about 60 researchers from across Europe. If there has been any negative fallout from the US government’s anti-trust case, he claims ignorance.
“We’re respected because of who the people are, and they would be respected if they worked for IBM or the mafia,” said Needham. “The standing of our people is so high, in the computer science world, that this completely overtrumps anything people might feel about the corporation as a whole.”

Not that MSR Cambridge has much to do with Redmond. Needham claimed they try not to duplicate things being done at other Microsoft Research labs in California and China, but he decides who to hire and what to research, and in general, the results are published.
“When people have been with us for a couple of months, we send them to Redmond,” he says, so they can get to know other researchers and people from product groups. “We are not working on next year’s products, but we do know an awful lot, and sometimes it turns out we can be helpful. For example, we have had people putting generic functions into C# [the open computer language used in Microsoft.Net]. It’s not research and I would not want them doing it for very long, but it was helpful.”

One example is the Cambridge work on image objects led by Professor Andrew Blake. He is working on improved filters that, for example, let users draw round and cut out part of an image then fill in the background. His demonstration involves removing one girlfriend from a tourist scene and replacing her with a different girlfriend. The aim, according to Blake, is to develop something that is “smart on the inside, simple on the outside.” A huge amount of complex maths is involved in getting a programme to separate, say, a hairy animal from background vegetation. But for the user, it just delivers a slightly better result from one pull-down menu option in a paint program. Some research requires less complex maths but could deliver obvious benefits. For example, researchers are also working on different ways to manage browsing. History Explorer, one of the additions to Internet Explorer, lets you see where you have been by keeping a series of thumbnail pictures of pages linked together. However there is no guarantee it will be adopted by product teams.

Research, the Cambridge way, therefore rarely makes a visible impact on products, but it does have influence. “Small pieces of technology typically get transferred, rather than large advances,” said Needham. “You would have to do something rather special to divert the juggernaut, but you can make things better.”

Read our exclusive interview with Roger Needham and Rick Rashid here.||**||

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