Microsoft shows off new technologies at faculty summit

Microsoft demonstrated a sphere-shaped touchscreen device at its annual research day.

Microsoft demonstrated a number of technologies that it is developing in its research department or in collaboration with university researchers, including a sphere-shaped touchscreen device, at its annual faculty get together.

Sphere is a multi-touchscreen, similar to Microsoft's Surface computer, but it is round. Microsoft envisions that it could be used in a collaborative public environment, like a hotel lobby.

Hrvoje Benko, a human-computer interaction researcher with Microsoft Research, wrote in his blog that the system combines touch capabilities with a projector and an infrared camera. The projector sends images to the inside of the sphere, and can also sense when something touches the outside of the sphere. It's designed to offer a 360-degree view and touch access.

"There is no master-user position," said Banko, who showed off the Sphere at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, Washington, on Tuesday.

That means that users standing on either side of the globe could separately manipulate the device, viewing photos or videos independently of each other. But it was designed to ensure that such users could also interact with each other, he said. A user on one side can swipe a photo to send it around to the other side.

The Sphere was one of many devices on display at the event's demo fest. Ken Perlin, a professor in New York University's computer science department, showed off what he calls the UnMouse Pad. It looks like a mouse pad, but rather than using a mouse, people just touch the pad with their fingers to navigate a computer. It's quite sensitive, Perlin said, so it could be easier on wrist and hand muscles than a mouse, and it could be useful to people with disabilities who may have limited use of their hands.

Graduate students from design institutions also showed off prototypes of concepts they developed as part of Microsoft Research sponsored classes. Nadim Matuk Villazon of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico, displayed Foodmate, a system designed to help kids eat better. Kids would wear a bracelet that they can wave over the barcode of a food product. The bracelet grows wider based on the nutritional value of the product. The bracelet will then shrink if the child does enough exercise to work off the calories from the food.

Foodmate comes with software that parents use to monitor the calorie intake of their children and the number of calories they've burned off. It also offers them tips on balanced meals and good nutrition. Villazon and his colleagues are working with the health department in Mexico to set up a pilot of the product, he said.

Another fun demonstration consists of six vertical tubes back lit to look like lava lamps. Valves at the bottom of the tubes release bubbles and can be programmed to send up bubbles across the tubes that take the shapes of letters. One of the device's creators, Andrew Malota from the University of Texas A&M, envisions it could be used in a bar to advertise drink specials and generally contribute to the ambiance.

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