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Originally published March 1, 2010 at 7:35 PM | Page modified March 2, 2010 at 12:51 PM

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A peek at where Microsoft thinks we're going tomorrow

Microsoft's TechFest science fair this week will be closed to everyone except employees, but research boss Craig Mundie gave a preview Monday, outlining broad trends the company expects to see in software and computing.

Seattle Times technology columnist

Microsoft's annual TechFest science fair this week will be closed to everyone except employees, but research boss Craig Mundie gave a small preview Monday to a handful of reporters, outlining broad trends in software and computing that the company expects to see in coming years.

Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, explained how computing is evolving from the graphical user interface to natural user interfaces, such as speech, touch and voice.

"The two things will become a lot more complementary," he explained after showing several prototype systems at Microsoft's home-of-the-future demonstration facility.

Mundie said he's also expecting 3-D systems to "bring together the physical and cyber world and intersect with them."

This is happening not just in movies but in imaging, such as Bing systems that blend online photos of places to create 3-D models that can be explored with a mouse.

But the clearest leap is likely to be Microsoft's Project Natal system for the Xbox 360, which also was demonstrated during the session. The demo took place using a near-final version of the hardware, which is set to go on sale this holiday season.

Xbox exec Don Mattrick, a senior vice president, declined to provide retail pricing; there were lots of details of the Natal technology.

Microsoft prohibited photos, but the hardware it showed was a smoother, larger version of the developer version released last year. The current iteration is about 10 inches long, in white plastic with tapered ends, like a 2-by-2 board with miter cuts, about the volume of a paper-towel tube. It has a white base with the same design as the current Xbox Live Vision camera accessory.

The device has microphones for sound recognition on the plane underneath, and the plane facing players had three sensors. One is a light projector used to ensure the system performs despite lighting conditions in a room. Another is a color Webcam sensor, and the third is a black-and-white CMOS sensor used to monitor depth in the room.

The system operates at 30 frames per second and uses its readings and motion analysis to calculate likely actions players are taking in real time, with an algorithm that uses less processing power than a cellphone.

Also shown were the latest features of the Microsoft home, including several demonstrations that added health-management systems based on Microsoft's HealthVault platform. A watch placed on a sensor plate displayed recent activity and goals, and a touch-screen computer in the kitchen called up a personal health console with news about the user's condition, schedules and the ability to slide a timeline forward to predict future health based on current activity and medications.

Muscle computing

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The TechFest preview included visits to a handful of booths set up in Microsoft's on-campus conference center showing research done in Redmond and at labs in Europe and Asia.

One focused on prototype input systems worn on the arm, including one called "Skinput" that projected virtual buttons onto the skin. That allows a computer to be controlled with taps along an arm or even on the side of a coffee cup held in the hand.

Microsoft researcher Desney Tan demonstrated "Always Available Input With Muscle Computer Interfaces," a system using armbands with muscle sensors that work as computer interfaces. Instead of clicking a button or touching a screen, users move their fingers and hands to control input, and the bands work by sensing muscle activity.

Tan demonstrated the system by playing "air guitar" to control the "Guitar Hero" game.

There was no word on when the arm devices could become real products, but Rick Rashid, senior vice president of research, noted that this sort of prototype demonstration led to products such as the Xbox Natal controller.

Other demonstrations included a system for realistically rendering brush strokes on a computer, using sensors in a pad on which the user "paints," and a gyroscopic "cloud mouse" used for navigating 3-D interfaces.

Researchers also showed a phone system that simultaneously transcribes and translates voice conversations in real time. The transcription feature is coming soon to Microsoft's Exchange messaging system, but the translation feature is still being developed.

Brier Dudley's blog excerpts appear Thursdays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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