From the Labs: ETech 2005

by Daniel H. Steinberg

Many companies invest heavily in research but few are willing to let you look inside their labs. On the opening day of O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference, attendees got a preview of projects that may or may not ever be released as full scale products from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google.

Unusual Input and Output Devices from Microsoft

Rick Rashid of Microsoft research asked what would happen if we could record everything that happened to you in a day. There are many reasons that this isn't interesting. First of all, recording everything would leave you with too much information to sift through. Secondly, as you move, many of the images that would be taken and stored would be too blurry to be of much use. The SenseCam is a small device that you wear throughout the day that decides, based on other sensor cues, when to take pictures that might be important.

Rashid demonstrated by showing a film that consisted of a series of pictures taken as the person wearing it spent an ordinary day. It provide a pretty complete scoped view of the whole day. Rashid said that these devices can be used to support individuals with memory loss. It can allow patients to record and consolidate memories. Also, it can help their care givers check on what went on during the day. There are, of course, privacy issues associated with having these devices out in the world. Microsoft is investigating the concerns that people may have.

Rashid then showed what happens when you take different kinds of surfaces and use them for input and output. PlayAnywhere converted a tabletop into a 40-inch display on which the user played a game. TouchLight used similar ideas but instead of using a flat surface, the device was built using holographic film with cameras behind it.

The Technology Buzz from Yahoo

Yahoo Research Labs head Gary William Flake presented some of the pre-beta items featured on Yahoo's research focuses on machine learning, collective intelligence, scientific computing, and text mining.

The featured applications include a site for movie recommendations, an API to incorporate Yahoo search in your applications, and the Yahoo toolbar beta for Firefox. For the demo of Y!Q he searched for tickets while on a page containing a news story about the Baltimore Orioles. The search results picked up the context of the story and returned results about tickets that had something to do with the Orioles.

Related Reading

Revolution in The Valley [Paperback]
The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made
By Andy Hertzfeld

Flake then introduced the new Tech Buzz Game which, he said, "aims to tap the collective wisdom of the web." The game is like playing a futures market where you are betting on stock that represents predictions about the future of some technology. For example, from the game page, "As a player, your goal is to predict how popular various technologies will be in the future. Popularity or buzz is measured by Yahoo! Search frequency over time. Predictions are made by buying virtual stock in the products or technologies you believe will succeed and selling stock in the technologies you think will flop."

At Google Researchers Ship and Engineers Research

Peter Norvig, director for search quality at Google, began by emphasizing that he is a director of engineering and not a research director. Although he did highlight some applications from Google Labs, the most important points he made were about the culture surrounding research at Google.

Imagine what would happen in your business if you could give the smart people that you have screened and hired the time to think. Google Suggest is an auto-completion feature that is responsive in a web application. One engineer worked on the project in his spare time because he thought it would be a cool thing to do. For Google engineers, spare time is the one day a week that they are afforded to work on whatever they want.

Another Google policy is to erase the distinction between engineers and researchers. Engineers are expected to noodle around and explore what can be done. Researchers are expected to ship products. Norvig showed examples of other current beta projects including Google Maps. The user doesn't feel like they are working with a browser-based application as they can grab the map and drag it in any direction to see more of it in what looks to be real time.

Norvig also showed how you can determine how personalized to make a particular search. You can configure your settings but use a slider to indicate where on the spectrum between general and personalized you would like your result set. He also showed Google Suggest in Japanese and explained that Google weighs how much to implement in an individual language as opposed to how much can be ported from a single English implementation.

The morning look inside the labs allowed the audience to consider the possibilities in extending today's technologies and reassured them that leading companies continue to invest in the future.

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.

See more ETech Coverage.