Ideas on display at Microsoft's TechFest

Two-day science fair lets researchers pitch ideas for future technologies to the tech giant's product units.

REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft researcher Mike Sinclair wants to teach cell phones to dance.

By holding two phones together and briefly moving them in the same way, Sinclair said, the phones can generate an encryption key that will let them share data in a way that even a determined snoop nearby would not be able to intercept.

There are millions of cell phones out there with Bluetooth wireless technology, ideally allowing for all kinds of ad hoc connections. However, security concerns, as well as the difficulty of creating sharing "profiles," mean that few of these hookups ever take place.

Raman Sarin, a software design engineer in Microsoft's research unit, wants to solve the same problem but has a different approach. His idea, dubbed "Blue Rendezvous," is to have the users of two Bluetooth-enabled phones press the same button to signal that they want to talk to each other. Once that connection is established, the people can then send whatever information they like to each other: business cards, photos and the like.

Separately, both Sarin and Sinclair were pitching their ideas to Microsoft's product units as part of TechFest, a two-day internal science fair that runs through Thursday at Microsoft's headquarters here.

Though such overlap might be seen by some as waste, Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton believes allowing for it is a good idea. Buxton, who joined Microsoft just this past December, says he's encouraged seeing researchers working in similar areas--that means the idea is more likely to become a reality sooner rather than later. He notes that entirely new ideas, like the mouse, take decades to make it to market.

Buxton, the former chief scientist for Alias Wavefront and a TechFest newbie, said he was impressed by the technology on display but was more pleased to see the looks on the faces of the thousands of Microsoft product unit workers who strolled through the booths.

"You need this period to help raise your head," Buxton said. It sends the message to workers that "I'm not going to be (just) fixing bugs in Windows 10.0 or Windows 20.0."

Buxton said that he's convinced such efforts will bear fruit and that he was impressed with what he saw. "I'm convinced in 10 years people are going to say 'When is Apple going to come out with this? When is Google going to come out with this?'"

Unit's growing importance
Microsoft's research unit, now at 700 people, has become increasingly important to the software giant, which is in the throes of competition with both of the companies Buxton mentioned, as well as others.

When Microsoft found itself behind on search after years of underinvesting, it was the research unit that allowed the company to at least try to get back in the game. Though MSN had outsourced most of its search work, the research unit had continued to delve into new areas, including desktop search and approaches to improve Web search relevance.

"We stepped in and we had many components," said Henrique Malvar, director of Microsoft's Redmond lab, the largest of Microsoft's five research facilities. "They were very glad."

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