Random thoughts on most things from A. M. Craig.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Research Expo

I've had the chance of seeing a few really great things while I've been here at MSNBC.com. Being so closely associated with the Giant that is Microsoft has it's benefits. I've gotten more swag than I know what to do with. I toured the Home of the Future, a little like if MSFT execs designed Epcot Center. I've been able to attend the MSFT Product Fair to see Steve Ballmer speak. I was here for the last day Bill Gates worked as a MSFT employee. And a few days ago I attended a Research and Design Expo.

The Design Expo had a few points of note. Much of what was being shown was, in my humble opinion, gimmicky and not worth much attention. But some of it was worth your attention. The demonstration of the spherical Surface prototype was primitive but promising, and an obvious extension of MSFT's aim to make every surface around us smart. They proved that with the Home of the Future tour. Apparently, in the future, you won't have a computer in your house. Your house will be a computer, with every wall, table, and cabinet a point of input and output, wired into the omnicient Web. Privacy watchdogs will love that one.
Home of the Future tour. The wall has a display visible through the paint, thus, your wall is a display. They got mad at me for taking a picture. I figured it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission.

But I digress. The Sphere Surface was interesting, though not exactly a game-changer for the computing industry (yet).

It dawned on me after I left the Expo that I'd seen the car they used to get 360* shots of Seattle for the Sphere demo. Saw it driving to work one day.

Another interesting project was a student and professor demonstrating their use of an augmented reality system. They had rigged a Sony UMPC to automatically classify plants in the wilderness. The process may take weeks using conventional classification tools (i.e. take a sample back to the library). It was a readily understood use, but there are countless others. It's a subject I've given way too much thought to, and I'm convinced A.R. is a huge industry waiting to happen. Mark my words.

They tried to show some of the other capabilities of the system, how it could visualize information and display it immediatly over your normal field of vision, integrated with the scene. A woman watching asked, "Well...what do you use it for?"

I was flabbergasted. I shouldn't be, I know I'm an early adopter where most people aren't. But that she couldn't see the potential of something like this caught me off guard. I wanted to say,
"What good are computing machines? The slide rule has always proved a trusty companion. Heck, long as I've got my abacus handy, that'll do just fine! Sign my anti-progress parchment, and I'll mimeograph some duplicates and we'll Pony Express these babies far and wide!"
But I bit my tongue.

I chatted for a while with the researcher heading up the project. Through phrases like "In the early 90's when we started all this..." it was clear he'd been doing this for a long time. We were a couple A.R. evangelists lamenting the worlds' failure to accept the future. He said the only reason you don't see this technology everywhere is A) Nobody has set up a business plan for it, so B) Nobody invests in it. I told him I'd work on the business plan. He (understandably) laughed a little, but I wasn't kidding.

I searched around when I got back to my office and found that I'd been talking to Dr. Steven K. Feiner, who, so far as I can tell, is one of if not the leader in the field of augmented reality.

There were a number of other projects there, but my time is limited. Before I left, I got to see my friend Anthony present his project from a class at UW. His group did a great job, and won an award (best concept? I can't remember).

As an aside, I'm officially no longer satisfied with my phone's camera. It's past time to upgrade. Maybe I should start working on an A.R. headset to replace my phone, glasses, GPS, camera, and mobile web connection.

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