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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft researchers work toward three-dimension computing

Microsoft showed off some of its latest research at its Professional Developers Conference on Wednesday, including giving another dimension of sorts to its Surface technology.

Seattle Times technology reporter

LOS ANGELES — The next version of Windows, unveiled here this week, will have new capabilities to work without a mouse and a keyboard, letting people manipulate some computers more naturally by simply touching the screen.

Microsoft researchers Wednesday showed a prototype technology called SecondLight that some day could push man-machine interaction a step further, off the screen and into three dimensions.

Researchers started with Microsoft Surface, a touch-sensing computer that projects an image from below onto a semi-opaque glass tabletop.

Infrared cameras pick up objects and hand movements on the tabletop, allowing people to move and resize photos, for example, by touching them.

The researchers, from Microsoft's lab in Cambridge, England, added new technology to the Surface that can simultaneously project a second image onto another surface held above the tabletop, such as a piece of tracing paper or plastic.

"Really we're talking about bringing the user experience and the user interface out into the real world," said Steve Hodges, one of the researchers working on the SecondLight prototype.

In one example, an image of the night sky is displayed on the tabletop screen. A second image with the names of the stars and constellations in the first one appears on tracing paper held above the surface.

The infrared cameras can also see through the tabletop to pick up hands, arms, faces and other objects in the space above the Surface. A handheld "magic lens" — outfitted with infrared lights so it can be tracked by the cameras — can act as a secondary, mobile screen.

"Imagine being able to pick up windows off your surface computer and actually use this secondary surface to view them," said researcher Shahram Izadi.

The audience of software makers here for Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference seemed impressed.

Sensing power

A major focus of this conference and the computing industry is the emerging area of cloud computing, in which users will perform more computing functions remotely through powerful banks of server computers in warehouse-sized data centers.

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These data centers are power-hungry, which is why several have been built in Washington and Oregon to take advantage of the region's inexpensive hydroelectricity.

In 2006, U.S. data centers consumed 60 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, about 1.5 percent of all U.S. consumption, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report. That amount is expected to nearly double by 2012.

About half of a data center's electricity consumption goes to run the large clusters of server computers, which generate lots of heat. The other half goes to cooling and energy distribution.

Microsoft is trying to improve its energy efficiency by adjusting operations to move the most intensive computing tasks away from hot spots.

The company is installing 10,000 small, wireless temperature and humidity sensors to measure conditions throughout its data centers, said Feng Zhao, a principal Microsoft researcher, who helped develop the sensors. That information, combined with statistics on power use, cooling systems and network traffic, will help the company limit its power usage.

"This is important for Microsoft to make those data centers the most energy-efficient operations in the world," Zhao said.

Young programmers

Computer programming isn't just for people who want to design operating systems, said Matthew MacLaurin, a Microsoft researcher in Redmond.

The underlying skills of math, logic and analysis apply to any complex endeavor, he said. Programming is also a great creative outlet.

That's why Microsoft, along with several universities, is working on new ways to interest young kids in programming and computer science.

MacLaurin demonstrated Boku, an easy system that allows kids to design and play their own video games using an Xbox 360 controller.

It is a visual programming language that lets kids create games by stringing together simple logical statements that control the behavior of characters and objects in the game.

Designed for kids as young as 7, the game uses terminology borrowed from the real world rather than more abstract programming terms.

"We wrestled with the idea of whether we should allow you to shoot in the games, and the kids really let us know that it was absolutely mandatory that we were able to shoot," MacLaurin said.

Kids can seamlessly switch back and forth between programming and playing to see the results of the code they've written and make adjustments.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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