Microsoft Research hits the road with mobile tech

WiFi prototypes and projects popular at TechFest.

Mobile technologies, from Wi-Fi to RFID, took center stage among the two-dozen-plus prototypes on display for the press last week at Microsoft Research's annual developer show-and-tell, TechFest.

Lenin Ravindranath, assistant researcher from Microsoft Research India was there to show off the SixthSense project, a radio-frequency identification (RFID) system that lets users video-catalogue tagged items and then recall on video records the last time the object was moved, or removed from the building.

"This is something different," said Ravindranath. "This captures the interaction between people and objects." This might help with objects misplaced within the enterprise, he said.

Mark Tauschek, a senior analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, said this type of device could raise some trust issues in the workplace.

"There is the privacy issue here--employees in the enterprise might feel that Big Brother is watching them. If every time they pick up a resource like a book or a video and it's all catalogued, there may be some resistance." The application will instead probably find the best fit with vertical markets, he said, suggesting health care as an example, where administration might want to track the location and usage patterns of certain pricey equipment.

Sensors were an important part of Venkat Padmanabhan's project, which put forward the idea of using the built-in sensors and capabilities of cellphones and smartphones to create a network capable of tracking traffic patterns, including the amount of braking, honking, potholes and congestion. Said Padmanabhan: "There are far more mobile devices than PCs in the world today, and they already have microphones, GPS, and cameras," he said. "They can act as road traffic monitors." This way, he said, you could use the information to find the quickest or least-stressful route somewhere, or be fed into the department of road works for traffic or road improvements.

There are other applications, according to Padmanabhan: "You can do human-powered search where you can do a query, and it's directed to the right person (such as someone who had been to a certain restaurant recently), or make use of an on-demand Webcam. If you have a million webcams, your query can be routed the right phone (to do things like check out the current conditions in Central Park, for instance)." To encourage people to become part of the sensor network, he said, they would be offered incentives, such as credits toward their own future queries.

There could be a problem with this approach, according to Tauschek. He said, "I don't think that this will catch on with a significant number of people. There's no personal information transmitted, but perception is reality, and the perception that you have a device with something installed on it that allows Microsoft to know where you are at any given time..."

On-the-go WiFi prototypes and projects were also popular at TechFest, where researcher Thomas Moscibroda presented a new spectrum-altering project that aims to improve throughput, range, and power consumption during wireless use.

"What happens when you narrow the channel, your range gets bigger and it saves power," said Moscibroda. "You'll have a longer battery life, rather than increasing the power." For power-intensive applications such as file-sharing or an overloaded access point in a conference room, the spectrum can be widened. The application would not require any new hardware, and would only need a new drive and firmware. Another option would be to use any unused television spectrum, according to researcher Ranveer Chandra. "There's white space not used by television, and you can start transmitting on it, depending on how much isn't being used.

Said Tauschek: "The one problem I see is that that could violate the standards, as they're carved in stone." He said that the power consumption reduction could be the safest selling point here, but that, by the time Microsoft Research could productize and market the application, there will be newer types of longer-life batteries and standards that try to reduce power.

Achieving a more seamless wireless experience is the goal of researcher Ratul Mahajan. "Wi-Fi has become so ubiquitous, so why can't you use it while driving in your car?" he said. "The challenge is that the protocol talks to only one access point at a time, as it was designed for indoors." The new software would leverage capabilities already built in, allowing for lost packets to be picked up by another access point if the original one drops it (rather than having it just re-sent to the original access point again and again). "Once you have a city-wide mesh deployment, you could just get free WiFi communication wherever you drive," said Mahajan.

Authentication would be the number-one problem for the researchers to tackle to ensure a truly seamless and secure experience, said Tauschek.

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