Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Microsoft's Techfest

The online buzz in being drowned out by MiX, where Microsoft has made some not-terribly-surprising announcements (IE8 and Silverlight 2 Betas), but also occurring recently is Microsoft’s Techfest, a internal show Microsoft puts on where their researchers get to show off the cool stuff that they’re working on. Channel 9 had an opportunity to record some stuff with a few of these teams. And some of the work was pretty cool.

One team, is working on a music suggestion system that actually ‘listens’ to the music to determine what kind of music it is, in order to determine what similar music would be that a user might find interesting. It’s really interesting AI research, that completely removes the need to have people tag music. In fact, after the initial training of the AI is done, human intervention basically becomes unnecessary. For streaming music services, this is a potentially huge cost-savings development, as well as a system that could greatly help the exposure of new artists, by making the suggestions coming out of these services more reliable and useful.

One team has done a lot of work on Field Programmable Gate Arrays, which could help processor design immensely, as this is a field that has sort of stagnated in recent years. A series of household automation sensors using SOAP-based communication and Wireless TCP/IP that will run on 2-AA batteries for 2+ years. As someone who’s given a lot of thought to household automation with something like MisterHouse, this appears to be an excellent alternative to expensive, and flaky X10. I just hope it’s ready soon.

There is some interesting research occurring to try to make it possible to generate statistical data for projects like the Netflix Prize, without the almost guaranteed disclosure of personally identifiable information. The system is based on MS SQL Server (of course), and it exposes an API where people can submit requests to you, and returns the results of the query, sans any identifiable information. So, Netflix wouldn’t have had to give everyone a “scrubbed” database of actual user preferences which could be linked against IMDB, rather people would submit their queries, and get the statistical data they needed back cleanly. For certain types of queries, for instance for the Locality queries supported in SQL Server 2008, it will institute a bit of a ‘fudge factor’ to try to reduce the possibility of revealing information. For instance, if you were Amazon, and you wanted to see the shipping addresses of all the DVDs sold, for localities where the data is sparse, the data returned will not be as accurate (possibly township level instead of street level) to prevent inadvertent disclosure. I’m not sure how well it will all work yet, but the system is definitely interesting.

Finally, there are some collaborative search technologies that Microsoft is working on, including one where you can store your search data (and notes on searches) on a Microsoft service, and bring in other people to participate in the searches with you, including the ability to see what searches they’ve done, what sites they’ve visited, and notes they’ve made. Another system to allow people to share a single computer to do research, using multiple-mice and cellphones as the input devices. Of course, these applications only work with IE and Microsoft’s Live search (currently), so even when Collaborative search is made available, I won’t be able to use it. But the idea is an interesting one, and it would be possible to create an interesting mash-up that did the same thing in a browser and search engine agnostic manner.

As I’ve said recently, Microsoft research seems interesting, and while I’m not sure about the way some of these technologies will be made available, or even if they’re really viable, the support Microsoft has provided it’s research teams to go out and create is phenomenal. I wish Techfest had received more coverage, because I’m sure there was plenty more that was interesting happening, and that probably would have been more interesting that yet another demo of Silverlight 2 and Expression Blend studio (with apologies to ScottGu).