Microsoft after hours: the sequel

A little over 18 months ago, I attended an event at Microsoft titled “Vista After Hours”. The idea was that, instead of showing us all the features of the Windows ecosystem that were relevant to daily life as an IT Professional, Microsoft would demonstrate some of the things that can be done in Windows apart from work – demonstrating that the world of Windows is not all about dull, corporate applications.

Earlier this week, I was back for more – as Viral Tarpara, Paul Foster and Jamie Burgess demonstrated some of Microsoft’s products aimed at consumers and hobbyists.

As is likely to become the norm around here for such events (so many blog posts, so little time), I won’t write it up in full but here are some of the highlights:

  • Gears of War 2 – the latest big game for the Xbox 360 and phenominally successful (but I’m not a games guy).
  • Viral took a look at Windows Live Services – Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (MSN/Live) are all doing similar things (although each will claim that it has the best new features!) – taking a look at a few of Microsoft’s Windows Live Services:
    • A new look for live.com is on it’s way to the UK. Personally, I like it – and you can hover the mouse over certain positions on that day’s picture to see links to potentially interesting facts.
    • Windows Live Mail: with a new Outlook-like interface and the ability to connect to multiple mail services (and chose which send via); add own stationary (arghh!); and it will soon include photo e-mail capabilities (e.g. select 4 photos, all resized and embedded in e-mail – rather than as an attachment – then add a frame, or make it black and white, make contrast corrections, etc.).
    • Windows Live Photo Gallery provides a gallery view for resizing, viewing/adding metadata, tagging and editing photos (preserving the original) but publishing etc. is where the Live Services come in and pictures may be published to Flickr, Windows Live Spaces, etc. The end result is highly functional software on the desktop PC, plus services in the cloud.
    • Windows Live Writer is Microsoft’s blogging software and it: integrates with various platforms (WordPress, Blogger, etc. – even SharePoint); applies the site’s stylesheet to the posts as you write; allows insertion of pictures, videos (YouTube or Soapbox), etc.
    • Windows Live Maps: whilst many people use Google Maps – Microsoft claim that Live is superior for business requirements (I prefer the Google mapping view) and it now features: a 3D view using an Internet Explorer/Firefox browser plugin (and no more page refreshes – zoom in and out – very impressive, although it’s a lot smoother on Microsoft’s Internet connection than on mine); a bird’s eye view which uses a Photosynth-like effect to select high resolution images; a free API to use and expose in own applications; collections of public or private searches (e.g. a walk around 3D Manhattan) using public data to link to map (e.g. Times Square).
  • Paul demonstrated Photosynth, which works out how pictures relate to one another in a four dimensional space to build up a complete picture. Because synths only show the data that this appropriate at this moment in time it’s possible to jump around and explore the environment at a reasonable speed. Using the example of Stonehenge, even though the photos were all taken at eye level, the synther can work out where the stones stand so that it is possible to view from above (or even below!). More images helps it to work out more points of view and speech synthesis technologies such as mousegrid can be used to navigate and scroll around.
  • Even I (the non-gamer) was impressed by the new Xbox 360 experience that Jamie demonstrated (due for a worldwide release today for a phased deployment to all Internet-connected Xbox 360s):

    • The user interface has been redesigned and blades have been replaced with a dashboard.
    • Music can be streamed from another PC to the Xbox and played over the top of games or anything else; effectively the Xbox becomes the presentation layer in the living room.
    • Avatars are a huge new feature – with more and more options coming online all the time.
    • Games may be stored on the hard drive.
    • Xbox messaging capabilities integrates with non-Xbox users of Windows Live Messenger (e.g. on PCs).
    • The interface is much more graphical/visual than previously and therefore become much more immersive.
  • Paul showed how Community Games allow anyone (or at least anyone who can write code) to create and publish their own games to Xbox Live (10 million people) including charging Microsoft points and sharing the revenue with Microsoft (the approval process does require accurate rating of the game’s suitability). XNA Game Studio is used with the Express Edition development tools and the resulting games will run on Windows, XBox, or Zune. For more information, check out the XNA UK user group, which aims to provide “a helping hand for bedroom coders throughout the land”.
  • Moving on to home automation systems, Jamie spoke about how he had run co-axial and CAT5 cabling around his parents’ house to stream content from two Sky Plus boxes to almost any room, using IR receivers in the ceiling to control everything from a single remote control. Further information on this type of setup (with Windows Media Center) can be found at The Digital Lifestyle and The Green Button. Much more tangible was Paul’s demonstration of his home automation with everything from recording and playing media content in Windows Media Center to using the mControl digital home software to remotely access CCTV feeds, set the temperature in a room and even water the plants in the garden. B&QBased on a system of scheduling and triggers, Paul demonstrated a HomeEasy system (available from B&Q) with an RF controller and xPL software to control lights (a blog post has been promised…). More Home Automation products are available from Let’s Automate.
  • Viral took a look a some more of the Windows Live services and admitted that the current version of the Windows Live Homepage is not as engaging as other Web 2.0 technologies (the good thing about Viral is that he may be a ‘softie but he also admits to using alternative solutions “because that’s how real people work”) before commenting that a new version will have tighter integration with various other services (e.g. Flickr, Twitter, etc.).
  • Viral also showed off some of the new features in the latest Windows Live Messenger beta – things like assigning your own entrance sound to play on your friends’ messenger client (uh huh… that will be annoying); what’s new (see what friends are up to – a bit like a Facebook status); activities – games, calendar swap, etc.; and photosharing where you can send a series of thumbnails by messenger and recipient can browse for more detail.
  • Ethernet over powerline is a technologies I considered until I replaced my wireless access point with something decent and Jamie briefly mentioned the success he’s had with a NetGear 200Mbps solution in his modern apartment (where the building construction makes Wi-Fi difficult.
  • Jamie then went on to talk about modifying his Mazda MX5 with a 7 inch touchsreen, connected to a mini-ITX PC in the boot, running a Centrafuse front end for GPS (USB attached), Radio, Phone via Bluetooth, Playlist, Music and videos (using a USB dongle Wi-Fi synchronisation between the car and his home whilst in the garage), OBDII diagnostic data, camera, weather, etc. Apparently, you can even have Live Mesh working on this solution too. It sounds like a neat in car entertainment solution but it also sounds like the classic case of a rich kid putting more electronics inside his car than the car is worth… but if this sounds like something of interest then check out MP3car.com.
  • So, moving on to Live Mesh, Viral demonstrated it as a combination of social networking and synchronisation so that files in Mesh-enabled folders on each connected device are synchronised so that data is accessible wherever (based on synchronisation policies to control which contacts can see which data). Using the “Synchronising Life” video I embedded in my recent post on Windows Live FolderShare, he spoke of the potential for Mesh-enabled picture frame and gave a real-world example of how he (in the UK) and his girlfriend (in the USA) share pictures and other information via Live Mesh as the different timezones and work schedules mean that they may not be online at the same time.
  • Paul spoke of how he has Windows XP Pro trimmed down to 384MB and running on a USB key with a mini-ITX PC. It’s possible to do this using the evaluation tools for Windows XP Embedded/CE to strip down although the operating system image does expire. Pico-ITX PCs are even smaller yet still offer USB support, VGA output and SATA II drives. Find out more at mini-itx.com.
  • A Microsoft Surface table is a $10,000 device based on a technology called Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR). Paul demonstrated build a DIY multitouch device using nothing more than a cardboard box, a webcam, a sheet of perspex and a sheet of paper, together with software from the Natural User Interface group). Basically, he fed the webcam through a hole in the bottom of the box (camera facing up) and used the perspex as surface (with paper on top to block out ambient light). The NUI software will handle the view, inverting the image, removing the background, etc. but some additional coding will be required in order to build multi-touch applications. I have to say that it was pretty amazing!
  • Next up – robotics. Those who were at the Windows Server 2008 launch in Birmingham earlier this year may remember Paul’s A1-DW robot (A1 = top stuff, DW = a bit of a dimwit – he needs to be told what to do) but Paul showed a video of the robot working its way around his house. A1-DW is controlled with software developed using the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio (MRDS) which is free for non-commercial use and provides a combination of a visual programming language and physics-enabled based simulation. In Paul’s demonstration he used a simple programme to join the SetDrivePower control on a GenericDifferentialDrive to the TriggersChanged event from XInputController (a Wireless Xbox controller) and drove it around the room – the idea being that services scattered across a home network (one big grid computer) can be used to control less powerful robot.
  • The next demonstration was of Windows Home Server, showing how this product has a very simple user interface, designed to make it easy for consumers to set up a server in their home and manage users, shared folders, storage and websites (e.g. for sharing a photo album with friends and family). Plugins are available (e.g. mControl for home server) whilst the network status is indicated with a simple red, amber, green system which advises of any action to be taken (e.g. update anti-virus definitions, perform a backup). There is also a simple interface for setting up backups, password policies, remote access (reverse DNS is established via the Windows Live ID authentication process – upon sign in, the IP address of the server is recorded in the homeserver.com DNS zone), port forwarding (via uPnP), etc. Windows Home Server is available to system builders as an OEM product, or a fully-configured system costs around £500 (e.g. the HP EX400 MediaSmart server at £499). For more information on Windows Home Server and the digital home, see We Got Served.
  • Looking at some of the developments in Microsoft hardware, Viral demonstrated: Microsoft’s new mice with a blue LED light which can track smoothly regardless of the surface; new LifeCam devices with HD picture quality and messenger integration; and an arcmouse where the end folds in for travel without the usual restrictions of a mobile mouse (i.e. its small size).
  • Finally, Paul showed off Windows 7 Ultimate Edition running on a netbook. The model he used was an Acer Aspire One with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, 1GB RAM, 120GB Hard drive (not SSD) and I was very impresed at the performance and the graphics (e.g. very smooth Flip-3D effects). For those who were confused by the apparant doublespeak in my recent post about installing Windows 7 on an old PC, it’s worth considering that this machine cost him £228 including shipping (for a Linux version) and has a Windows Experience index of 2.3 (2.9 for the CPU, 3.3 for RAM, 2.3 for graphics, 3.0 for gaming graphics and 5.0 for disk). Having seen this, I’m almost certainly going to be buying a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 for Windows 7.

For someone who mostly concentrates on Microsoft’s business-focused products, it was interesting to spend an evening on the consumer side of the fence. In summary: an evening of geeky goodness.

6 thoughts on “Microsoft after hours: the sequel


  1. If only the Xbox had a Blu-ray drive, I’d go back to it in a second.
    Look at for the new Dell 12″ coming, similar specs to the 9″ but more usable I think, 9″ is just too small.


  2. Hey Aaron!

    I’m sure I heard something about Blu-ray coming to the Xbox 360 (can’t remember where though).

    As for the Mini 12 – sounds great but too big for what I’m after. I would like something small for personal stuff that I can sling in my work bag and use rather than carrying 2 laptops (MacBook for home and PC notebook for work) when I’m away from home.

    M


  3. Is there a Microsoft mailing list for events? I kicked myself for missing the Vista ‘Out of Hours’ 18 months ago – this one hasn’t even made it onto the MSUK Events website. Ta.


  4. Hi Mike,
    I think you must have missed it somehow – it was originally scheduled for the summer and got postponed for some reason but the event page is linked from the main UK TechNet Events page.

    I also tend to pick up on these events from the TechNet fortnightly e-mail that Alexandria Ball sends out (and the 5 November one included a link to the Microsoft After Hours event).

    HTH, Mark

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