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TechFest 2013: Technology Gets Smarter
By: Fabien Petitcolas, Director for Innovation, Europe
06 March 2013

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In its 13th year, TechFest, is an annual event that brings together for a couple of days, our researchers with people from our various business divisions. It’s one of the processes we use at Microsoft to foster connection between research and product development. Our European research labs have a strong presence with many great projects.

The event is now in full swing. Not all demos are public of course, but below is a small selection of those which are, and you can find more here. I’ve grouped them in two fundamental technology trends that we believe will drive a shift from a world of information technology to a world of “intelligent technology”.

Arrival of Big Data

The massive explosion of data from machines, sensors and people—along with the broad availability of affordable cloud services at scale—are bringing us powerful new tools that turn data into insight. Advanced analytics and interactive data visualization are enabling even non-experts to turn data into knowledge. Data is becoming the lifeblood of a variety of new applications and services that will become critical to business, work, and home life. With a robust cloud infrastructure and big data, we can tackle problems at a global scale—from climate to business logistics.Drew Purves of our Cambridge, UK, laboratory shows how we could make it dramatically easier for people to go from big data to models to predictions about things that really matter, giving them the ability to make better decisions. As an example he uses the yield of wheat as a function of the climate.

François Dumas of our Advanced Technology Laboratory in Aachen, Germany, looks at processing of data in real time and shows how this could be applied in a manufacturing environment to help detect defects in products.

Lucas Bordeaux of our Cambridge, UK, laboratory presented how some machine-learning tools can be seamlessly integrated into Microsoft Excel for the benefit of non-expert users. The tools can infer the values of missing cells, detect outliers, and enable users to analyse data tables more productively.

More Human Natural Interfaces (NUI)

We can now use speech, gesture, and touch to interact with computing systems, and they are able to get a better understanding of what we are doing and what we need or want. This is possible thanks not only to new types of sensors and greater computing power, but also to big data and machine learning. Using a computer will be like working with a trusted specialist at your side who anticipates your needs and provides helpful guidance.

Bongshin Lee of our Beijing research laboratory demonstrated new and more natural ways to access information that help people effectively explore and present their data. It is an interactive whiteboard system for storytelling with data by using real-time sketching. Creating personalized, expressive data charts becomes quick and easy. The presenter simply sketches an example, and SketchInsight automatically completes the chart by synthesizing from example sketches. This demo was already picked up by the BBC.


Michel Pahud looked at how we could interact with large office displays. One way, he suggests, could be to have interaction menus appear next to a pen-holding hand. Another option is to use a mobile phone to navigate through and select the options we want to use.

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