Thursday, 30 October 2008

PDC Day 3: Microsoft Research

I’ve not given Google Reader much attention over the last few days – I’ve been a bit busy with other stuff – so tonight when I finished up I thought I better pay down some of my aggregator debt: I had something like 450 posts to look through, and my aged laptop stuttered through them rather slowly. Thus I don’t have a great deal of time to give you today’s news before I fall asleepppppppppppppppppppppppppp – oops - at the keyboard: a guy sat in the armchair next to me in the keynote did just that, and his whole screen filled up with zs!

The Keynote

P1020974 They Key note this morning was given by Rick Rashid, Head (or Director, or Vice President or whatever top-flight title they’ve given him) of Microsoft Research. He’s clearly a distinguished guy, even if he did say so himself. He’s been in the same job for 17 years. Before that he worked on various groundbreaking projects, like NeXT OS, which later became MacOS X, and one of the very first networking games, AltoTrek. Since joining Microsoft Research, Rick has led the team that delivered the first version of DirectX,  and other tools that became shipping products.

After its 17 years of growth, Microsoft Research now has more than 800 researchers: that was equivalent to creating a new computer science faculty every year. They have Turing and Field medal winners in their ranks, and more members of the National Academy of Engineering than IBM.

Rick mentioned a couple of interesting areas of research. One was Theorem Proving software. For example, they have developed Terminator: software that is able to prove termination for a very large class of programs. In connection with this, one Microsoft Researcher proved Church’s Thesis, which was an open problem for 50 years.

P1020983Changing up a gear (for energy efficiency), Rick introduced a colleague who talked about the work they were doing with sensor networks. As a demo, they had rigged up the PDC hall with a network of 90 environmental sensors. Live on stage they showed the temperature readings that the sensors were giving, superimposed on a view of the hall from Virtual Earth. The presenter showed fast forwarded through the data, showing the hall cooling at night, then warming up again as the lights were turned on, then even more so in the regions around the doors as attendees streamed in. This kind of information can be used to optimise the use of Air Conditioning in a building, for example. Microsoft themselves are using this to make their new Data Centers more energy efficient. An extension of this is SensorWeb, a web-based Sensor sharing project (all hosted in the Cloud of course) that allows many researchers from all over the world to contribute their own sensor data to a big pot for interesting analysis.

Rick then flicked through some other demos from the Computational Biology arena (Human Genome decoding, HIV research) – there’s even code for this stuff that you can get from CodePlex.

They finished with two cool demos. One was of Boku, a game for Children to teach them how to program. They’ll release a version of it for the XBox later next year. Children can create their own games by putting objects and characters in a world, then visually assigning rules to the things to tell them how to behave. For example, you can drop a couple of apples in the world, then configure a little creature to move towards an apple when sighting it. It looked great.

The other demo was of a future version of the Microsoft Surface device called SecondLight. This one uses some clever materials to allow secondary displays in the space above the surface. They showed Virtual Earth in satellite view display on the surface, then they held a piece of tracing paper above the device, and the street view was projected onto the tracing paper. Cool stuff. It works by using a voltage to control toggle the surface material very quickly between opaque and transparent. While it is opaque the surface display is project; when it is transparent, the image for the secondary display is shown.

The Sessions

On that high note the keynote ended, and I arose from my comfy chair for the last time. I attended Daniel Moth’s excellently presented session on the Parallel Task library, and the features they are adding to Visual Studio 2010 to support it. They announced that the library (which includes PLINQ) will be shipping with .Net 4.0. In Visual Studio there will be two new features to debug Tasks (which are like light-weight threads): the Parallel Tasks window which is a bit like the Thread window, but shows running and scheduled Tasks; then there’s the parallel Stacks window which shows a tree view of all Tasks and their relationships, and the stack for each Task. There’s a good MSDN article on these features.

I spent most of the rest of the day in Oslo sessions. I think the picture is becoming a bit clearer now; I’m going to one last session tomorrow from Chris Anderson to learn about the language for building DSLs (In other news, I added his autograph to my Oslo Modelling book today). After that I hope to blog my impressions of it. In the meantime, you’ll have to content yourselves with Martin Fowler’s analysis!

One last piece of excitement. I filled in my session evaluation forms today, being the good boy that I am. After completing one of them an announcement came up on screen that I’d won a prize. Since it didn’t invite me to Click Here!, but rather to go to the main information desk, I took it seriously, but didn’t hope for more than a tee-shirt. I was actually handed a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate. Now since I already have a spare copy of Vista, I’m inclined to find an innovative way of giving it away. Watch this space!


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