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Originally published February 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 25, 2009 at 11:11 AM

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Brier Dudley

Microsoft TechFest: A pinch of your fingers and images, videos move

Among the roughly 40 projects shown Tuesday were systems for placing ads alongside images on a Web page, a digital sticky-note device and a prototype data center built from 100 of the low-power Intel Atom processors used in cheap netbook computers.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Instead of sending Steve Ballmer to New York on Tuesday, perhaps Microsoft should have sent Hrvoje Benko from its advanced research group.

Ballmer's pitch to investors — that Microsoft should keep spending heavily in research and development of future products — apparently didn't impress Wall Street, where Microsoft's stock slipped a few cents.

Meanwhile, Benko dropped jaws with the futuristic technology he demonstrated at Microsoft Research's annual TechFest science fair on the Redmond campus.

The event highlights work by the 800 people doing advanced research in Redmond and labs around the world. Projects were demonstrated Tuesday to press, academics and partner companies. Today it's for employees.

TechFest was initially a way for researchers to meet and share with product groups, but it's become a media spectacle.

Among the roughly 40 projects shown Tuesday were systems for placing ads alongside images on a Web page, a digital sticky-note device and a prototype data center built from 100 of the low-power Intel Atom processors used in cheap netbook computers.

Some of the catchiest exhibits were experimental interfaces that suggest ways people may control computers, TVs and game consoles. They're still prototypes, but the technology could end up in products eventually.

Benko demonstrated a system for controlling images and video using gestures such as pinching your fingers in front of a projector's lens, like making shadow puppets on the screen.

The projector he used points upward, at a domed screen in a darkened space. It felt like you were immersed in the virtual space, which would shift and move as Benko pinched his fingers — simulating a mouse click — and moved his hands in the beam of light.

A highlight was using the system to explore the solar system, as captured by Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope, an online compilation of space imagery. With a few gestures in Benko's theater, you zoom up to planets and nebula and race through the stars at warp speed.

Benko said it was designed to be relatively inexpensive, with a single camera added to a projector, so a school class could use one as an interactive planetarium, for instance. Viewers Tuesday included a NASA technology chief.

David Kirk, from Microsoft's Cambridge, England, lab, showed a device called Family Archive that could be the ultimate digital-scrapbooking tool.

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Kirk built a tabletop computer that uses multitouch controls and a built-in camera to collect, store, sort and display collections of photos and memorabilia.

Kirk put snapshots of a trip to Holland onto the screen. With a tap he pulled up a digital cardboard box, marked "Europe Trip," into which he put the photos. He added a scanned restaurant menu, then set a tiny pair of souvenir clogs on the table. The system took a photo of the clogs, which he put in the box, closed the lid and set aside.

One inspiration was parents overwhelmed by children's artwork. "Often these pictures just get shoved in a drawer and there's too many to deal with," he said.

Kirk hopes it becomes an application on Microsoft's Surface tabletop computer, not yet available to consumers.

Lei Ma and Qiang Huo, of Microsoft's Beijing research center, demonstrated systems for "writing in the air."

The idea is that by waving your hand around, with or without a remote, you can enter text on a TV screen — particularly Asian characters that the system recognizes.

One system uses a webcam to sense hand motions. Huo held a solid-colored object like a tennis ball in front of the camera so it could lock onto something, then moved the ball to write Chinese characters.

Ma showed a remote control similar to Nintendo's Wiimote. It used a combination of accelerometers and Bluetooth radio signals to enter text and control action on the screen. He said the system could eventually work with mobile computing devices that increasingly have accelerometers inside.

They're hoping the technology is used with Microsoft's Xbox or TV systems. Huo said it could help Asian customers navigate lists of video titles, for instance, after Xbox Live's video-rental service comes to Asia.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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