Microsoft Research gives photo help, for a price

Redmond's research arm has a new tool for creating photo collages, but unlike past products from the labs, consumers have to pay for AutoCollage.

Tech Culture
Here's what Microsoft's AutoCollage tool made out of a few pictures from last week's ASANA World Series in Seattle. Ina Fried/CNET News

As someone who is interested in both photography and collage art, Microsoft Research immediately caught my eye this morning with an announcement about a new tool called AutoCollage 2008.

But what really struck me is how much Microsoft Research sounds like other product groups these days. First, there was the name, AutoCollage 2008. That sure doesn't sound like something from the labs. Second, to get the program, one has to buy it for $20 from Windows Marketplace (there is a 30-day free trial version, but it stamps a big watermark on the resulting collages--see above).

I tracked down one of the folks who worked on the project from Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge, England. Software architect John Miller works as part of an incubation team that helps create products out of ideas from the research lab there. What attracted him to the collage tool, he said, was the fact it "combined really interesting technology and something I would be able to talk to my mom about."

The product works by taking a folder of photos, trying to rank which photos seem most important, detecting faces, finding key points of interest, and then rotating and resizing the photos to create the final collage, which can then be saved or printed as a 4x6 or 8x10.

Like many projects, though, Miller said it was something that took a lot of work to make into a shipping product. Hence, the decision to charge for it.

It's not the first time Microsoft Research has sold its technology directly to end users, but it is not a frequent occurrence. There is one other research project currently sold, a product called Microsoft Automatic Graph Layout 2007 for .Net. Microsoft also used to sell a game called Allegiance, which was developed in part by Microsoft Research chief Rick Rashid. It now provides the game and its source code freely.

AutoCollage also seems indicative of a broader effort in the company to make sure it is getting return on its research dollars. While the company's first goal is to transfer its technology to product teams, Microsoft has also been looking for ways to license to start-ups some of the technologies that it doesn't plan on commercializing.

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