REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 2, 2004 — Are you intrigued by the notion of invisible computing? Curious about research directions in social computing? Wondering about the possibility of using statistical analysis to locate spam Web pages? If topics like that sound intriguing to you, then the epicenter of your universe this week is probably Redmond, Washington. That’s where many of the world’s leading computer science and computer engineering researchers have gathered for the fifth annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit.
Created to bring together top researchers from academia and Microsoft to talk about the future of computing, Faculty Summit has grown in size — and importance — each year. This year, Faculty Summit will draw 400 university researchers from more than 135 leading academic institutions from around the world, along with scores of researchers from Microsoft Research.
“Our goal is to get the leading minds in the field of computer science research together to talk about the future of computing,” says Microsoft Research University Relations Director Sailesh Chutani. “It’s a chance to find out where the real innovation is in the academic world, to share Microsoft’s vision for where we think computing is headed, and to create new relationships and strengthen existing ties between academic researchers and the people here at Microsoft Research.”
The event kicked off today with keynote addresses from Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and Microsoft Research Senior Vice President Rick Rashid. The two leaders focused on critical challenges that the computer industry faces, and on the vital role academics and Microsoft researchers will play in influencing the next generation of software innovation and productivity.
According to Chutani, this year’s event is an especially important one for Microsoft and Microsoft Research. By far the largest gathering in the event’s five-year history, it also follows an intense six-month period that has seen Microsoft Research University Relations actively engage in a close dialogue with the academic community to deepen interaction and collaboration with universities around the world. Those discussions have led Microsoft Research University Relations to develop a number of new programs intended to broaden the partnership between academia and Microsoft.
A More Open and Accessible Approach
One of the most important changes has been an effort to more clearly define areas of research where support from Microsoft can help university researchers achieve the most tangible progress. The result is a focus on three specific research domains where there is critical need for innovation: the emerging computing environment; the transformation of science by computing, and the advancement of the state of the art in computer science curriculum.
Another key change is a new effort to expand the number of universities that Microsoft Research supports and collaborates with on research projects. In the past, University Relations has focused its efforts on creating close ties to faculty at a relatively small number of leading research universities. Feedback from the academic community suggested that both sides would benefit from a broader approach.
“For a long time we’ve mostly worked with people at the top computer science and computer engineering departments in the world,” says Chutani. “But there are a lot of people outside of those institutions who are doing outstanding research. We realized that we were missing opportunities to engage with some of the real innovators out there who are looking for a way to work with us.”
To make it easier for university researchers to interact with Microsoft, University Relations has moved to a more open and accessible process for awarding funding for research projects and will extend the reach of its communication to include more schools.
“The feedback we received makes it clear that we need to be more open and transparent,” says Chutani. “So we’ve adopted an RFP-based model for funding new projects. That will help us provide support for the people who are doing interesting research no matter where they are working.”
A Nearly Perfect Collaboration
Ben Bederson, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland and the director of that university’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), applauds this new direction.
“One thing that is different and better is the explicit call for proposals,” Bederson says. “Before, the process was very ad hoc. If you were already connected to Microsoft Research and knew whom to ask, you had a much better chance of getting funding.”
As director of HCIL, Bederson has worked closely with Microsoft for a number of years. HCIL was created in 1983 to focus on the design, implementation and evaluation of new interface technologies that are potentially useful and appealing to a wide range of people.
One of Bederson’s information visualization projects, called DateLens, resulted from close collaboration with Microsoft Research. A calendar application for handheld devices such as PDAs as well as desktop computers and Tablet PCs, DateLens utilizes fisheye views of calendar data to enable users to zoom in and out and view more information than fits on the screen. A desktop version of Datelens can be downloaded at no charge at the HCIL Web site, and a Pocket PC version is being marketed by Windsor Interfaces, Inc., a company founded by Bederson.
According to Bederson, Microsoft Research played an important role in the development of DateLens.
“I was interested in interfaces for PDAs and Microsoft Research said that while calendars are the most important thing people do on PDAs, the calendar interfaces were really lacking,” he says. “That key observation led to a nearly perfect collaboration: Microsoft provided the spark for the idea, I provided the spark for the solution and then we worked together to evaluate the results.”
Piccolo.NET is another project that has received support from Microsoft. A development toolkit for creating zoomable applications and interfaces like Datelens, Piccolo.NET was created to make it easier to build structured 2D graphics that users can interact with. With Piccolo.NET, developers have a library of objects that support the kind of interactive graphics that makes Datelens such a useful way to view calendar information. Developed originally as a Java toolkit, Bederson has — with support from Microsoft Research –created versions for Microsoft .NET and the Pocket PC that will be released at Microsoft Faculty Summit.
The success of DateLens and efforts like Piccolo.NET has led to an even more ambitious collaboration between HCIL and Microsoft Research. Last November, the two organizations announced the dedication of the new Microsoft Center for Interaction Design and Visualization at HCIL. Supported by a three-year, US$1 million grant from Microsoft, the center focuses on information visualization approaches to information worker and developer productivity tools, as well as other research projects including the International Children’s Digital Library, which aims to acquire the rights to good children’s books from around the world and make them available for free online.
“There’s this great cross-fertilization of ideas that takes place when industry and academia collaborate,” says Bederson. “Microsoft Research has played a very important role by helping me define important real-world problems. At the same time, as an academic institution, we’re not constrained the way industry can be. They have a set of products and set of users, and product cycles that tend to be very short, so it can be very hard to justify the risk of doing something that may require years of exploration. Universities provide an opportunity for the more in-depth reflection that is sometimes needed to understand the implications of a new idea.”
Mutual Benefits of Cross-Fertilization
Richard Anderson, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, has also seen the mutual benefits of cross-fertilization that occurs when academia and industry work in partnership. Anderson’s work centers on using technology to enhance instruction and increase interaction between instructors and students.
While on sabbatical from his position the University of Washington three years ago, Anderson worked at Microsoft Research on the Learning Experience Project. Sponsored by Microsoft Research’s Learning Sciences and Technology group, the Learning Experience Project was created to explore ways that emerging technologies such as high-bandwidth wireless devices and Tablet PCs can be used to create more compelling collaborative learning experiences.
“Before I went on sabbatical I’d heard that there was a project at Microsoft Research that matched what we were doing at the University of Washington,” says Anderson. “I had identified classroom presentation as an area of interest and this was when the Tablet PC had just been announced. I immediately latched onto Tablet PC’s potential in the classroom and was able to work on early versions of it before it was released.”
The Learning Experience Project led to the development of ConferenceXP, an Internet-based video conferencing system that delivers high-quality audio and video over broadband connections, enabling universities to develop real-time collaboration and videoconferencing applications that use virtual collaborative spaces called venues for interaction. Anderson’s contribution to the project is an application called Classroom Presenter, which enables instructors to use a Tablet PC to write with digital ink on top of slides used in classroom presentations. After Anderson returned to the University of Washington, Microsoft gave him access to the source code and continued support for his work on Classroom Presenter.
“One of the things we learned as part of the Learning Experience Project was that a lot of instructors found distance learning classes frustrating because they had to teach from PowerPoint slides, which often led to scripted, inflexible lectures,” says Anderson. “That motivated the idea about finding ways to integrate handwriting and slides because writing is one way to adjust materials to the audience, which is critical to good teaching.”
Classroom Presenter is available both as a component of ConferenceXP and a stand-alone application. It can be downloaded for free for non-commercial use, and Anderson estimates that it has been used by at least 70 instructors at the University of Washington and other universities.
Studies to see how instructors actually use Classroom Presenter have led Anderson into a number of intriguing new areas of research. One possibility is to find a way to record both the audio of a lecture and the inking of slides in order to create an archive of each lecture that can be indexed and searched. Another involves using the discipline of linguistics to explore the way inking and speech work together. Anderson is also looking at developing accessibility tools to make inking available to people with disabilities. All of the work has been supported by Microsoft Research.
Geared to Meeting the Local Needs of Academia and Industry
Another important component of the new direction at Microsoft Research University Relations is an emphasis on international programs. Microsoft has University Relations groups in Redmond, Washington; Cambridge, U.K., and Beijing, China focused on local concerns of the research and teaching communities in their respective regions. In addition, the Redmond group provides direct programmatic support for Latin America and India.
“Our goal for each one of University Relations’ global programs is to be relevant to the local needs of academia and industry,” says Chutani.
Supporting the Virtuous Cycle
All of these initiatives–from support for Ben Bederson and Richard Anderson to iCampus, as well as this week’s Faculty Summit–are geared to helping Microsoft further what Chutani at Microsoft Research University Relations calls the “vital, lively marketplace of ideas” that is created when academia and industry work in concert.
“Microsoft Research University Relations has recognized since its inception that there is a virtuous cycle that arises when universities and industry researchers work in close partnership,” he explains. “Universities are the fundamental source for independent research and a critical training ground for the people who will create tomorrow’s new products. Microsoft offers assistance in the form of tools, technology and financial support, and has an important role to play in helping set the research agenda by communicating real-world issues. Working together, we can ensure that the most promising concepts are developed, and the brightest minds receive the support they need to grow and thrive.”