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Microsoft demos innovations at annual TechFest

Audioconferencing, variations on 'Surface' computing, social e-mail programs on view

By Nancy Gohring
February 24, 2009 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - If you’ve ever been frustrated with trying to determine who is speaking when listening to a conference call, help may be at hand.

At the annual TechFest event, Microsoft researchers showed off technology that can make it easier to notice when different like-sounding speakers are talking.

Current audioconferencing systems mix all audio into a single channel, said Zhengyou Zhang, principal researcher at Microsoft Research. The system he helped devise uses different audio channels so that each person’s voice sounds like it is coming from a different direction. Listening to a sample prerecorded audio conference in headphones, it was easy to tell that two different men with similar voices were indeed two people, because one man’s voice sounded like it was coming from the left and the other from the right.

The audio conference technology was one of many projects put on display by Microsoft’s researchers at TechFest. Technologies developed within Microsoft Research sometimes make it into commercial products, but not always.

Other technologies at TechFest came from Microsoft’s Cambridge facility, where researchers are working on systems designed to help people better organize and access photographs and other personal information.

David Kirk showed what looks like a variation of the Surface tabletop computer. It’s smaller and built into a wood table. While it uses infrared light to detect movement on the screen, like the Surface, its lights shine from the sides rather than beaming through the screen.

Users can dump photos from their digital cameras onto the computer and use the touch screen to arrange them into boxes. They can also place objects, such as mementos from a vacation, onto the screen, and a built-in overhead camera snaps a photo of the objects. That way people can integrate not just digital photos but physical items into the machine, Kirk said.

He and his team have built three of the tables and placed them in people’s homes to study how they use them. One newly married couple had a collection of notes that people who attended their wedding had written on the candy wrappers left at each person’s table. They were worried about how to best keep the notes and used the Microsoft device to take photos of each piece of paper and collect them, along with wedding photos, in a file.

Another family found that their 6-year-old son liked to take photos of his toy dinosaurs, arranging them in collections.

One of Kirk’s colleagues helped develop TimeCard, which could help people develop a timeline history of their families or themselves. Richard Banks, who demonstrated the project, showed off one that he’d created for his grandfather, who had been in the Royal Air Force during the World War II. The timeline included not just photos of his grandfather, but also general historical information about what was going on in the world at the same time as each photo was taken.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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