Microsoft TechFest provides glimpse of future

What do cats and Internet security have in common? If you had attended Microsoft Corp.'s TechFest 2007 on Tuesday, you would know.

At the event, which gave Microsoft Research a chance to demonstrate technologies that may one day turn up in Microsoft or third-party products, the research group showed off Asirra (animal species image recognition for restricting access). This is a technology that uses the identification of photos of cats to ensure that humans, not interactive scripts, are accessing certain Web sites.

The problem with human interactive proof (HIP) technologies used today is that they often ask Web users to identify characters, not images, said Jeremy Elson, who works in Microsoft Research's lab. HIP technologies are used by Web sites to ensure someone signing up for a blog or for a service is human, not a software program that wants to spam other users of that service or site. Some of the most common ones display a word that appears slightly distorted.

However, "it's easy for software to recognize characters" and pass for a human, Elson said. But the Microsoft Research team decided that a foolproof way to identify Web users as a human versus a software program was to ask the users to identify the difference between dogs and cats from images served up on a site.

The group teamed with Petfinder LLC to use its database of photos of dogs and cats as the test images. In return, under each photo, an "adopt me" link can take users to the site so they can actually look into adopting the animal they have chosen.

Anyone interested in using Asirra can download it from this Web site and test the software, Elson said.

Asirra was one of a host of technologies out of Microsoft Research on display at TechFest Tuesday. It was the first time the event was open to the public, and more than 300 attendees -- comprised of press, analysts, bloggers and curiosity seekers -- spent the day hearing about and seeing firsthand the work of various research teams.

While not every project makes it into Microsoft commercial products, the 800 researchers -- spread across five Microsoft Research centers worldwide -- and Microsoft product teams are constantly in touch to see how they can work together, said Andrew Herbert, a Microsoft distinguished engineer and director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.

"Technology transfer is a contact sport," he said. "You need a lot of contact [with product teams], and you make close contact."

Although there are about five reviews of Microsoft Research projects per year by top Microsoft product leaders, including Chairman Bill Gates, sometimes it's "simply persistence" that gets Microsoft Research technology into a product, said Kevin Scofield, general manager at Microsoft Research.

One of the technology areas that was of particular focus at Tuesday's event is one from Microsoft's front lines -- search engines. Microsoft Research demonstrated several projects that aim to improve Internet search, and at least one of those technologies -- which attempts to make searches more relevant -- will likely wind up in Windows Live Search.

The adaptive system and interaction team at Microsoft Research developed that technology, called Query Projections. Jurij Leskovec, an intern from Carnegie Mellon who worked on the project, demonstrated Query Projections, which creates graphs that map the relationships between links served up when a Web user poses a search query. These graphs are used to see how many of the top search results are actually the most relevant ones for that query, Leskovec said.

Dan Liegblig, who also worked on Query Projections, said his team talks daily with the Windows Live Search product team and hopes to use its work to improve the relevancy of results delivered by Microsoft's search engine. However, no timeline has been set for when that might happen, he said.

Another search technology came out of the integrated systems team in Cambridge. That project, called InSite Live, displays a visual graph of a Web site's site map. By using graphics of pushpins or by highlighting parts of the site, InSite Live shows which areas of the site deliver information to search queries.

With this graph, Web site administrators can see what areas visitors are most interested in, enabling them to provide better or more information on those pages, said Eduarda Mendes Rodrigues, one of the team's researchers.

While Microsoft may be trying to cook up new search technologies to compete with Google Inc., the company surpasses the search leader in its open-door policy that lets outsiders get a glimpse of corporate culture, said one TechFest attendee. Opening up TechFest to people outside the company for the first time is one example of that, said Brad Neuberg, an independent researcher in the San Francisco Bay area.

"Something that's really refreshing about Microsoft is their corporate culture has really opened up," he said. "The joke in the Bay area is that if you're at a party with someone from Google and you ask them 'What are you working on?' they will say, 'I can't tell you.' You rarely encounter that with Microsoft and Yahoo."

TechFest continues on Wednesday and Thursday, when it is open only to Microsoft employees.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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