Microsoft labs: Flying bicycles and more

Flying bikes, cell phone robots, smart walkingsticks andaudio speakers that defy logic are inventions all on display Tuesday atMicrosoft Corp. Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

Flying bikes, cell phone robots, smart walkingsticks andaudio speakers that defy logic are inventions all on display Tuesday atMicrosoft Corp. Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

On the second day of the Microsoft ResearchFaculty Summit,Microsoft researchers and their academic partners showed off some oftheirprojects. They ranged from the wacky to the relatively staid.

The Flying Bike is a project that would let usersride astationary bike that is integrated into a video game. In thedemonstration, thegame was Flight Simulator X and players have to pedal fast enough tostayairborne in the game. But Yolanda Rankin, a computer science researcherat NorthwesternUniversity and oneof the developers ofthe project, envisions lots of other games that users could play usingthebike, such as racing games and shooter games where players must flee orchaseopponents.

InkSeine is an application that tightly integratessearchwith pen computing. Users can write a word on the screen with a specialpen.Holding down a button on the pen and drawing a circle around the wordpops up amenu that allows users to search for the term online or on the harddrive.

InkSeine has other unique user interface features:Making acircular motion with the pen on the screen will scroll a Web page down.It’s aneasier movement than trying to touch the small box in the narrow columnon theright side of the screen with the pen and then pull it down.

One of the more amazing inventions on display is PersonalAudioSpace. In the demo, 16 small speakers in a vertical linesimultaneouslyplay two songs: a rock song and a piece of classical music. Up close,they letoff a cacophony of sound. But standing on one X marked on the flooraround fivefeet from the speakers, a listener only hears the rock song. Standingonanother X about two feet away next to the first, a listener hears onlytheclassical music.

The technology could be used in a variety ofapplications,said Ivan Tashev, one of the Microsoft researchers working on theproject. In ashared office, two workers could listen to music or their phoneswithoutbothering the other. Two people could sit on their front porch at home,eachlistening to their own favorite music. A baby sitter could watch TVwith a babyasleep in the next room, because the speakers could be used simply todirectsound to one place.

The system works by distorting the audio so thatit cancelsout in some areas and steers the sound into others. Ultimately, thesystemcould use cameras and microphones to detect where a person is and thenpointthe sound to that person on the fly, Tashev said.

Oscar Almeida, another Microsoft researcher,showed off a prototypeof a walking stick that uses a gyro sensor to detect stability. When itdetectsinstability, it could send a message warning a caretaker that the usermighthave fallen. The technology is a better idea, he said, than those thatmightsimply detect when a walking stick is horizontal, which could lead tolots offalse negatives and positives.

Another fun project on display was the result ofMicrosoftresearcher Brian Cross’ idea for how to use mobile phones that arediscardedwhen users upgrade. His Wimobot is asmall robot that uses the phone as its “brain,” he said. In hisdemonstration, he sends a text message that is a small program from aphone tothe phone in the robot. The program instructs the robot to lower a penonto thewhite board it sits on and draw a square.

Andy Wilson, also a company researcher, isdeveloping adevice that could serve as a less expensive form of the surfacecomputer thatMicrosoft recently unveiled. That computer will cost thousands ofdollars. Wilson’sinvention uses aprojector to display an application onto any surface, like a table top.Twoinfrared lasers pointed at the surface would allow users to grab anddrag itemswith their hands.

The company developers who showed off the projectswork inMicrosoft Research, a group of around 800 researchers developing about60projects. In his opening remarks on Tuesday at the summit, Rico Malvar,managing director of Microsoft Research, said that the mission of thegroup isto expand the state of the art in areas it does research, rapidly turninnovative technologies into Microsoft products and ensure thatMicrosoftproducts have a future.

Without getting more precise, he said the groupuses a smallportion of Microsoft’s US$7 billion research and development budget.

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