Brenda Cooper

Microsoft TechFest Report

I watched people write Chinese characters in the air with apples today.  Really.

I had the great good fortune to be invited to Microsoft’s 2009 Tech Fest. That means I spend the day wondering around the Microsoft Conference Center looking at the public-ready displays created by Microsoft Research (there are, apparently, more things out on the floor for employees tomorrow, but those are a bit more secret). The show brought together researchers and customers from all over the world on a show floor of future tech. By the end of the day I was so full of neat new ideas and so aware of my sore feet that I fell into a long nap with the dogs and dreamed of GIS-based user interfaces, location-aware communication between my PDA and yours (without me necessarily knowing about every transaction) and a ton of new ways to interact with my social webs.

They had their own way of categorizing the research, but from a broad brush I’d say a lot of what I saw was tools I’d love to have today that could help me manage my social and professional life, and get more done faster.  Being an outgoing type A, I like it.  There was an audio interface for interaction in the car that provided a lot of things to do hands-freed while driving. I have a new car with a new dash-build GPS onboard, and this felt like that with a better UI, and I won’t be surprised if I can buy it installed in a new car in a few years.

They had a colorful relationship map built based on web interactions. This was actually one of my favorites, if just because when I entered my name it showed me linked with a ton of great science fiction writers. I could have played with that for hours just to explore how it came up with its conclusions, but it was a popular display and there were other people wanting to see their own maps.  The screen shot I got with my iphone is a little hard to read, but it shows me connected to Larry Niven (I wrote a book with him), to Bruce Sterling (logical since we’ve worked together with Glen Hiemstra),  to Jay Lake (sure – he’s a friend of mine) and to Gene Wolfe (Who would not recognize me walking down the street).Connection Map from techfest

There was – finally, and hopefully soon – a drastically improved thesaurus.  That may not sound like much, but if you’re a writer…well, I’m ready for it. 

One of the fun displays was a way to organize history.  A researcher had captured his grandfather’s life from old memorabilia and photos and added a layer for what was going on in the world at the time.  I liked that use (and wish I had one built for my grandparents) and I can see the same information for our kids, for our dogs (if you’re like us about your animals) and for historical people, groups, etc. 

I guess it’s clear that the displays I was most attracted to were about people and interactions between them or otherwise about making the world richer and letting us do more in it.

Kudos to Microsoft for doing the research, and for making it available for simple local futurists and tech geeks like me to go get a look at.  It really was a very nice day.

Oh – and the apples in the air?  They were showing how to use everyday objects as input devices when you just don’t have a keyboard.