Making the rounds at TechFest

CNET News' Ina Fried is winding her way through Microsoft's internal science fair in Redmond. Here's what the first few booths had in store.

REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft already has several tools that stitch together a bunch of smaller photos to create a larger representation. With Photosynth, Microsoft even uses a collection of still images to re-create a three-dimensional experience.

Now a team of researchers is trying to do the same thing with video, in real time. The idea is that, at any given event, there are lots of people with cell phones capable of recording video. But the resolution of any one of those videos is pretty limited.

At the company's annual TechFest internal science fair on Tuesday, Microsoft showed how, in real time, multiple cell phone video streams can be stitched together to create one higher resolution video. The idea was developed by a trio of folks in Microsoft's Cairo, Egypt, labs as a way to provide video of class lectures. Pretty quickly, though, the team realized that the technique had much broader uses, everything from citizen journalism to live streaming a family wedding to distant well-wishers.

"There are lots of people that have mobile phones in their pockets," said Ayman Kaheel, a development manager at Microsoft's innovation center in Cairo and one of three people involved in that project. (I've embedded a video below of Kaheel talking about the project and giving a quick demo.)

A few steps over, Darren Edge was showing a project called Notes Scape that aims to create virtual sticky notes that travel with you wherever you go, appearing on any cell phone or laptop that you have nearby. I was a little fuzzy on the technology, but someday Edge said the approach could help visualize and organize information, particularly once we all start walking around with the kinds of heads-up displays that remain largely the stuff of science fiction.

While many projects are aimed at evolving traditional objects into their ultra-high-tech equivalent, the team from Microsoft Research India takes a different tactic. As part of their efforts to bring technology to the rural poor, the group often looks at what might be the lowest level of technology needed to solve a particular problem.

A few years back, the team discovered that a TV and DVD player was a far more effective way of showing improved agricultural methods to rural farmers than trying to use laptops.

This year, the team from India is showing a couple of education projects that try to take advantage of the limited technology that is already pervasive. In one, the group has taken books and digitized them to play on a standard DVD, using the fast-forward button to move from page to page. At TechFest, Microsoft showed a Dr. Seuss book running from a standard DVD, with audio added in the background.

"DVDs are a very cheap medium, much cheaper than textbooks," said Microsoft researcher Sarubh Panjwani.

Thousands of books can fit on a single DVD, said Panjwani. That means a school that can't afford many books can still have a library. It also means that the school can have a means to send books home with students. Even in rural areas, more than 70 percent of people have access to a TV and DVD players are also fairly common.

Plus, a book on TV can be shared by an entire classroom if need be, Panjwani said.

"A TV is big enough to share the content," Panjwani said.

I'll have more from TechFest in a little bit, including details on more research projects, more videos and pictures, as well as an interview with Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid.

See the rest of our coverage from TechFest 2009 here.

 

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