Microsoft's Research Director Taps Top Tech Trends
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Trend #2: Human/Computer Interaction

Koman: So the first trend is the mushrooming of storage. What's next?

Rashid: I think another area where we're seeing things starting to change fairly rapidly is in the human/computer interface. In devices, we're suddenly starting to see much more intelligent devices able to gather a lot more information. So for example in MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) technology, you can now make very tiny chips that can be gyroscopes or accelerometers or that can have the ability to access networks and do things like triangulation.

That means you can now start thinking about your pen, your shoes, as being able to collect a lot of information. So from a computer/human interface perspective, I can now just write on a piece of paper and have that information gathered up and take it into my computer in a useful way. I mean not just a bunch of scribbles, but where the computer can actually interpret that.

You're seeing things like the Tablet PC that we're bringing out with a bunch of partners later this year. We have an integration of handwriting recognition with the inking process. And inking in some sense is almost as important as anything else because what we find is people really just want to write handwritten notes and then they would like the notes to be made to look better but not necessarily be taken out of handwriting, and they want to be able to edit them as handwriting in the way they edit computer text. They want to be able to add things and remove things and add annotations and so forth.

If we integrate that kind of inking with handwriting recognition, with gesture recognition, and potentially with voice recognition, suddenly you have a whole new range of ways to think about someone interacting with a computer.

And we're getting much better as time goes on in terms of being able to manage the diverse modalities of input, and think about how they integrate with traditional forms of input. So, for example, I'd like to be able to search my handwriting in the same way I search text. And I might be able to search my voice annotations in the same way that I search text. I think we're getting to a point now where we'll be able to do that.

And even things like speech recognition -- which, historically, some people can use them while some people can't -- we'll reach a point over the next few years where we're crossing a threshold of usability. For example, with our Chinese speech recognition, many people are telling us that they can actually input speech much faster and have it be recognized than they can type.

Koman: Wow.

Rashid: Partly that's because it's really hard to type in Chinese -- you type phonetically and then the system has to recognize what character that might be, based on the sound. That's already linguistic processing, so there's an error associated with that. But people can actually speak faster in Chinese than they can type. That's not really true in English. For most of us that are halfway decent at typing, we're probably better at typing than dictating.

But still it's an indication that the technology really is getting to a point where it becomes a usable tool -- in Asia in particular, but I think it's becoming more usable in the United States and Europe as well. Although they═re probably more for reasons that people really can't type for whatever reason, because they're not able to use a keyboard for some reason, or the setting that they're in doesn't really admit it.

Koman: Well, there's a very real human toll in keyboarding: carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress injury ...

Rashid: Unfortunately you can also say the same things about voice. There are a number of vocal cord problems that can occur when people talk too much. I've had a little bit of that myself. It's evidently quite common in people that are my age that do a lot of speaking events, so I've been given some training as to how to try to avoid overuse syndrome for my vocal cords. I guess the good news is that if we have many different modalities then perhaps you don't have to overuse one of them.

Koman: Right. Can you say anything more specific about the Tablet PC?

Rashid: It will be coming out later this year. Bill has shown it at COMDEX and CES. I think the interesting part is that it's really melding the traditional PC with the handheld, pen-based portable devices. It has a very high recognition of the pen movement. So you can write with it, it looks good, you can preserve the ink, and manage it in the same way that you manage handwritten or typed material.

But at the same time it's just a PC and you have all the things a PC has, except perhaps a keyboard, and you can always dock it with a keyboard. Some models will actually come with keyboards that are basically folded on the inside when you want to use it as a tablet, and folded on the outside when you don't. It will give people a lot of options in terms of the way they think about using their computer. We see a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among a number of different communities of users for this type of a device, and so hopefully it will do well when it comes out.

Trend #3: Graphics

Koman: So, we have storage and interfaces.

Rashid: Another area that I think is very exciting is graphics. I've always been interested in graphics and computer games. I did a computer game back when I was a graduate student in the 1970s, and even since being at Microsoft, I've done a computer game here, so it's kind of a spare-time occupation for me.

What's exciting about graphics is that it's just a tremendous change in such a short period of time. I mean over the last three years we've seen a factor of a 100 increase in the performance of real-time 3D graphics that you can put in your PC or a game console. To put that in perspective you can basically now do more triangles per second -- which is a measure of the complexity of the scenes because software represents the surface of an object with triangles. We can now do more triangles per second with a high-end PC or with something like an X-Box console than was needed to render the original Toy Story, where it was two to 12 million triangles per frame.

That means we're now able to do in real time a lot of things that historically people could only do on extraordinarily expensive equipment or over very long periods of time. It also means that we can now use computer graphics technologies to create realities that were really never there before. Like in the movie Gladiator, Rome wasn't there, the Coliseum wasn't there. Those were all just graphics. It wasn't a science fiction movie but it was a special effects movie in a very significant way.

In the game area people are able to produce things now that are beginning to approximate some notion of reality, although usually it's a skewed reality where they're trying to make it look a little bit artificial. Over the next five to 10 years, we're going to be able to put on your computer screen something that looks a lot like what you see out your picture window. We'll be able to visualize many different kinds of information in a way that is much more compelling for people. We'll be able to take everyday objects and quickly and easily bring them into your computer.

Let's say you want a 3D version of your children. But also you may want to do analysis of, say you're a doctor and you want to do an analysis of the way that someone is performing some function and be able to analyze it in detail. I think we'll be able to do that. You're already seeing some of those things happen in sports medicine and various professional settings. But I think we'll be able to bring that to a much larger number of people as time goes on.

Koman: So, do you think this could radically impact the cost of medical technology, for example?

Rashid: It appears to have had an impact, already. There are a lot of things now that you can compute instantaneously that before you had to send off to a laboratory and have it analyzed for long periods of time. And as time goes on that will change the way people think about medicine. I think it's already the case that just having huge databases of information about proteins, about various kinds of molecules and chemicals and their interactions, that's already having a big impact on things like the production of pharmaceuticals.

One of the things the pharmaceutical companies tell us is that a lot of what they're doing is computation. They're doing a tremendous amount of simulation trying to find particular molecular combinations that can match up with a particular protein. Computers allow them to create targeted drugs in a way that they were never able to do before. And I think again over the next five to 10 years, our ability to specifically target diseases or the products of diseases will continue to improve.

Koman: Right, I was going to mention genomics and proteomics.

Rashid: Oh, it's very exciting. And again a lot of this is a combination of both increases in computing power, which of course is important, and increases in storage, because now you're really talking about enormous amounts of data that have to be collected in order to be able to do those kinds of analyses. The other side of it is that our knowledge of how to do things like this in software has dramatically improved. We're not doing the same old algorithms on faster computers; people are really devising new techniques for managing enormous amounts of data and storage, new theoretical techniques for performing certain types of computation. I think again, that's a part of it.

I mean one of the research teams we have here is in data mining. And one of the key things that they're looking at is when I have these enormous petabyte databases that I want to analyze, how can I do that in a reasonable amount of time. It's very important to be able to understand how to sample a database appropriately based on kinds of queries you make into it -- how do you get the right kind of information back.

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