Inside Microsoft's research labs

Microsoft demos its vision of the future

Microsoft Research recently held its annual display of current projects. We take a look at some of the products that realistically could make it through to consumers.

Another wireless invention from Microsoft researchers could help improve the way devices such as the Zune use Wi-Fi networks. While many engineers have worked on systems for optimising the use of radio spectrum, this one is different, said Thomas Moscibroda, a Microsoft researcher. The project he is working on dynamically narrows the wireless channel that a device is using. Typically, Wi-Fi devices use a 20MHz-wide channel. Microsoft's software, however, can dynamically adjust that down to 5 or 10MHz, depending on the application.

Using less of the channel cuts the power consumption of the device and improves range, although it throttles the throughput. In a practical application, a Zune, for example, might use a very narrow channel to look for other nearby Zunes. When a user decided to send a song via Wi-Fi to a friend, the Zune could automatically switch to the full 20MHz channel to speed up transmission of the song.

Moscibroda and his colleagues used standard hardware components for the Wi-Fi project and combined them with firmware they developed. Another researcher showed off technology that can dynamically adjust a home network so designated applications get bandwidth priority. A home network may serve multiple computers and multiple users, each with conflicting needs, noted Thomas Karagiannis, a Microsoft researcher. The software he helped develop, which must operate on each of the computers in a home network, can be used to prioritise applications. In one example, a parent who works from home can set her work applications as the top priority, so that a child watching YouTube doesn't slow down her work.

A couple of social-networking applications were also on display at TechFest. Blews is a site that would let users see at a glance which news stories are being blogged about most and which have the most passionate blog postings. A demonstration site lists snippets of political news stories, featuring a tab on the left with the number of liberal sites that have blogged about the story and a tab on the right with the number of conservative sites blogging about it. Small dots on either side indicate the level of emotion in the blog posts.

While some of the projects have public-facing websites, some don't. They are created by the 800 researchers at Microsoft Research who work in offices around the world. Some of their projects, but not all, are eventually incorporated into commercial Microsoft projects. Part of the reason for holding the annual TechFest event is to allow other Microsoft employees to see the types of projects the researchers are developing.

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Nancy Gohring

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