Young Microsoft Innovators Cited by MIT Magazine

REDMOND, Wash. – Sept. 22, 2009 – Two young Microsoft researchers have earned recognition from Technology Review magazine for their groundbreaking work in information retrieval and human-computer interaction.

Jaime Teevan, 32, was named a 2009 Young Innovator by the magazine issue for her work using personal data to help improve search results. Shahram Izadi, 33, earned the same honor for his research into alternatives to using mice and keyboards.

“It almost feels like something I would do on my own,” Jaime Teevan says of her work in information retrieval. “I am lucky to get paid for it.”

For both, the magazine’s acknowledgment is a prominent marker of careers on the technological fast track. Technology Review is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and focuses on innovation and new and emerging technologies. For almost 10 years, the editors at Technology Review have once a year honored 35 young innovators under the age of 35 whose work is “changing the world.” The honorees represent disciplines spanning computing, communications, electronics, nanotechnology and medicine.

For Teevan, the recognition comes from a familiar place. Three years ago she came to Microsoft straight from MIT, where she earned her Ph.D. Working with a group with the apt acronym CLUES — for Context, Learning, and User Experience for Search — Teevan is researching the way people look for information online and what they do with the flood of information presented to them.

In her work Teevan has found that half of all Web-page visits and a third of all searches are repeats. These interaction histories can be used to help people rediscover things they have seen before or find new content through personalization.

Teevan also is studying the value of serendipity in Web searches — the result when people stumble across valuable information on the fringes of their intended search. Teevan’s research has shown that as results become more personal, those fringes can help people draw connections they may not have otherwise made.

As an example, Teevan cites a story about her grandfather, who was a psychiatrist. He once did a research project on sleep, attaching monitors to subjects’ heads while they slept, but he had to cancel the study because people’s eyes kept moving and getting in the way of the results. “The next year, scientists discovered REM (rapid eye movement sleep, an indicator of dreaming),” Teevan says. “He was seeing the eyes moving while people were sleeping, but wasn’t making the connection.” Perhaps her work will help people make better connections.

Teevan uses many types of data to feed her research. She brings people into her lab on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus and has them perform searches while she logs their movements on the Web and studies their habits, sometimes even looking over their shoulder to find out how they search. She also scours the Bing query logs, which include data on the length of Internet sessions, what people searched for, what results were presented, and links people did and did not click on. “Research is such a creative area,” she says. “I love thinking deeply about things. It’s almost like a game, seeing what someone did and wondering, ‘Why did you search for that piece of information that way?’ These are questions I like to think about in my free time.”

“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a boy,” says Shahram Izadi, who works for Microsoft Research U.K. and was honored by Technology Review. “It’s amazing to have a job like this. I don’t take myself that seriously, so it’s always surprising when accolades come my way.”

Izadi works halfway around the world from Teevan — in the Microsoft Research facility in Cambridge, England. His lab is a bit like that of James Bond’s famous compatriot and gadget-master, “Q” — loaded with gadgets, but not of the exploding pen variety. In his Sensors and Devices group’s lab, Izadi’s desk is covered with the gadgets he’s working on. His group’s hardware lab features soldering irons, saws, a laser cutter and a 3-D printer. “It’s a cool place to hang out,” he says.

Izadi’s work explores new ways for humans to interact with computers. In particular he’s looking for more natural ways to interact with a computer than by using a keyboard and mouse. “Computing has become a mundane experience, but it could be magical,” Izadi says. “That’s another reason why I do some of the research that I do.”

To create that magic, Izadi is working on projects such as an adaption of Microsoft Surface, the company’s multitouch, multiuser computer. His variation, called SecondLight, creates an image not only on the Surface screen, but also one that hovers just above the screen, recalling Princess Leia’s famous “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” message from the first “Star Wars” movie.

That might have useful application when used with tools such as the World Wide Telescope, another product of Microsoft Research. An image of constellations may be projected on a Surface unit, but without any information about what constellations are shown. Then, when a sheet of paper is held above the Surface screen, the names of the constellations suddenly appear on the paper.

One of Izadi’s projects is called SecondLight, which creates an image projected on the screen of a Surface touch computer as well as second image that is projected above the Surface.

“It’s a really cool way of displaying data on a Surface computer and opening up the three-dimensional space of the surface,” Izadi says, adding that the modified machine could be used for everything from stellar (and interstellar) presentations, to navigating medical data, to a unique, high-tech game of chess.

It’s not hard for the inner kid to emerge in a job like his, especially since Izadi has had a proclivity for cool electronic devices — and for taking them apart — since he was young. “I think it’s probably fair to say that I was a little bit geeky when I was younger,” he says. “Not that I’ve changed much. I think it’s a fascination with the way the world works and a fascination with how things around you work.”

He said he drove his dad mad by constantly asking how things worked. “I became fascinated with science and physics from a young age,” Izadi says. “I still think magnets are the coolest thing in the world. It’s magic; it really is. Invisible forces.” When he arrived at Microsoft four years ago, he found himself at home. “Coming here, especially with the people I work with, I realize I’m not that unique,” he says. “The people around me also have geeky tendencies and also have a fascination with taking things apart. I’m in my element.”

Both Izadi and Teevan speak to the excitement they find in tackling big, new projects. Says Izadi: “There are two things that really motivate me. One is obviously to invent — use that term very loosely — but to basically be an inventor and get new ideas out there and realize new concepts. The other thing that motivates me is getting my technology into the hands of everyday users. Their reaction when they experience a technology other than what they’re used to is quite rewarding.”

For Teevan, her work at Microsoft also reinforces the wisdom of an early career choice. She started college thinking she would go into physics, but was “kind of derailed” by computer science because she found programming to be so much fun. “Physics is a pretty established field. In computer science, there are so many interesting problems just sitting there,” she says. “Even as an undergrad, those were problems I could tackle.”

She now has become a leader in the field of personal information management. “She literally almost single-handedly created this whole area,” Microsoft principal researcher Eric Horvitz told Technology Review.

For Teevan and Izadi, Microsoft Research has given them a home where they can reach their full potential. And now their work is getting the recognition it deserves.