Microsoft sees Dance Dance Revolution in e-mail

Software maker's research team looks to fancy footwork as the key to wading through messages.

Microsoft is looking to make scrolling through e-mail less work for your hands, and more work for your feet.

The software maker's research unit has developed a prototype e-mail program in which cubicle dwellers can wade through e-mail and delete messages using their feet. The StepMail program uses a standard dance pad, such as might be used with a video game such as "Dance Dance Revolution."

The genesis of the footwork project is that computer input is a continual strain on the hands, while other tasks, such as playing the piano or riding a bicycle, use both hands and feet. It's part of a broader look at the role feet can play in computing, an effort dubbed "Step User Interface" (StepUI).

"There's a whole bunch of things that we do with our hands and feet, but computers have never really been one of those," said Kevin Schofield, general manager of strategy and communications at Microsoft Research.

StepMail is one of more than 150 projects that Microsoft is showing off at this year's TechFest. The annual event, which takes place Wednesday and Thursday at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, allows workers from product teams across the company to check out what the company's 700-person research unit is up to.

The company expects a minimum of 6,000 workers to show up--more if it's sunny--in what is the company's sixth year of hosting the gathering. In addition to researchers in Redmond, Microsoft is flying in more than 100 workers stationed in other labs, including those in China, India, England and Silicon Valley.

The idea behind TechFest is that the easiest way to move technology from research into products is to connect the people from each area.

Microsoft sets few rules on the show, except that if the researchers want to present, they have to show something new. "It can't be the same demo that was here last year," Schofield said.

As for the StepUI project, researchers have yet to make any of the software publicly available. Internally, they have also explored using the same approach to sort through and tag a collection of photos. Schofield notes that most consumers want the benefits that come with having categorized their photos, but don't like the drudgery that comes with tagging the images.

The technology appears to hold broad promise, Schofield said, and could find its way in one of Microsoft's products, possibly even Windows itself.

"It is actually very comfortable, in most applications," Schofield said, adding that it also makes workers more active. "It's not quite so sedentary and unhealthy to be at your desk."

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