REDMOND, WASH. —Microsoft threw open the doors to its worldwide research laboratories earlier this week at its seventh annual TechFest event, an information technology expo during which the world's largest software maker offers reporters and scientists a peek into its high-tech crystal ball. The more than 35 technology projects on display at the company's campus included its far-out virtual WorldWide Telescope (WWT), software that is helping the U.S. National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative cull data from deep-sea sensors as well as programs designed to make solitary Internet searches a thing of the past.
"On the one hand, we're doing things that feel to me like [the] traditional sort of plumbing-level computer science, programming languages, operating systems, hardware architectures, things of that sort—but we're also stretching out to areas that you might not expect," Microsoft Research senior vice president Rick Rashid said during his TechFest keynote. "I mean, we're working in things like vaccine design and computational biology, quantum computing."
WWT is actually a nifty new PC program that stitches together imagery from the most advanced ground- and space-based telescopes to provide a seamless digital view of the universe in much the same way as Google Sky, which debuted in August. WWT software, which will be available for free some time this spring, is an extension of the TerraServer and SkyServer software developed by Jim Gray, the researcher and manager of Microsoft Research's eScience Group who last year went missing at sea—and was never found despite an all-out search by colleagues that utilized some of the tracking devices that he developed. The new software relies on Visual Experience Engine software developed by Microsoft Research to blend terabytes of images, data and other information from multiple sources over the Internet.
Targeting scientific pursuits closer to home, Microsoft Research developed software designed to help oceanographers at the University of Washington in Seattle, along with other oceanography organizations with their North East Pacific Time-series Undersea Networked Experiments, or NEPTUNE program. One of its goals is to create an interactive map of the northeastern Pacific Ocean, a feat that requires the coordination of information gathered from underwater sensors distributed along the ocean floor near the Strait of Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. Microsoft is helping the scientists create software built atop Windows Workflow Foundation to, among other things, let researchers search and visualize data as well as catalogue experiments.
Rashid also unveiled Singularity, a prototype operating system designed to help computer scientists and programmers write more dependable software and conduct more "inventive" research in systems, programming languages and tools. "Singularity is sort of a 'concept car' operating system," he said, that will improve the way operating systems and applications interact with one another.
Microsoft also provided a glimpse into future ways of doing research on the Web, demonstrating Search Together, a new plug-in to Internet Explorer that will help students, medical researchers and other prolific Web users collaborate on projects, allowing them to jointly save different searches and avoid redundancy. Another new project, CoSearch, is being designed to let groups of people participate in a Web search on a single computer by using multiple mice or even mobile phones.
Although a lot of the research on display at TechFest will ultimately make its way to the market in one form or another—whether as a product, a feature of a larger software program or the inspiration for a more advanced technology—Rashid pointed out that his organization's philosophy is to explore new areas of computing without trying to predict technology trends. "You do research because you don't know what the future is going to hold, you don't know what's coming around the corner," he said. "Scientists don't really create the future & what we do is we create the raw materials."