Over the last few years, I’ve attended (and blogged in detail about) a couple of “after hours” events at Microsoft – looking at some of the consumer-related items that we might do with out computers outside of work (first in May 2007 and then in November 2008).
Tonight I was at another one – an evening event to complement the UK TechDays events taking place this week in West London cinemas – and, unlike previous after hours sessions, this one did not even try and push Microsoft products at us (previous events felt a bit like Windows, Xbox and Live promotions at time) – it just demonstrated a whole load of cool stuff that people might want to take a look at.
I have to admit I nearly didn’t attend – the daytime UK TechDays events have been a little patchy in terms of content quality and I’m feeling slightly burned out after what has been a busy week with two Windows Server User Group evening events on top of UK TechDays and the normal work e-mail triage activities. I’m glad I made it though and the following list is just a few of the things we saw Marc Holmes, Paul Foster and Jamie Burgess present tonight:
- A discussion of some of the home network functionality that the guys are using for media, home automation etc. – predictably a huge amount of Microsoft media items (Media Center PCs, Windows Home Server, Xbox 360, etc.) but also the use of X10, Z-Wave or RFXcom for pushing USB or RF signals around for home automation purposes, as well as Ethernet over power line for streaming from Media Center PCs. Other technologies discussed included: Logitech’s DiNovo Edge keyboard and Harmony One universal remote control; SiliconDust HD HomeRun for sharing DVB-T TV signals across Ethernet to PCs; using xPL to control home automation equipment.
- Lego Mindstorms NXT for building block robotics, including the First Lego League – to inspire young people to get involved with science and technology in a positive way.
- Kodu Game Lab – a visual programming language made specifically for creating games that is designed to be accessible for children and enjoyable for anyone.
- Developing XNA games with XNA Game Studio and Visual Studio, then deploying them to Xbox or even running them in the Windows Phone emulator! Other related topics included the use of the Freescale Flexis JM Badge board to integrate an accelerometer with an XNA game and GoblinXNA for augmented reality/3D games development. There’s also a UK XNA user group.
- A look at how research projects (from Microsoft Research) move into Labs and eventually become products after developers have optimised and integrated them. Microsoft spent $9.5bn on research and development in 2009 and some of the research activities that have now made it to life include Photosynth (which became a Windows client application and is now included within Silverlight), the Seadragon technologies which also became a part of Silverlight (Deep Zoom) and are featured in the Hard Rock Cafe Memorabilia site. A stunning example is Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ TED 2010 talk on the work that Microsoft is doing to integrate augmented reality maps in Bing – drawing on the Seadragon technologies to provide fluidity whilst navigating maps in 3D but that environment can be used as a canvas for other things – like streetside photos (far more detailed than Google Streetview). In his talk (which is worth watching and embedded below), Blaise navigates off the street and actually inside Seattle’s Pike Place market before showing how the Microsoft imagery can be integrated with Flickr images (possibly historical images for “time travel”) and even broadcasting live video. In addition to the telepresence (looking from the outside in), poins of interest can be used to look out when on the ground and get details of what’s around and even looking up to the sky and seeing integration with the Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope.
- Finally, Paul spoke about his creation of a multitouch (Surface) table for less than £100 (using CCTV infrared cameras, a webcam with the IR filter removed and NUI software – it’s now possible to do the same with Windows 7) and a borrowed projector before discussing his own attempts at virtual reality in his paddock at home.
Whilst I’m unlikely to get stuck into all of these projects, there is plenty of geek scope here – I may have a play with home automation and it’s good to know some of the possibilities for getting my kids involved with creating their own games, robots, etc. As for Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ TED 2010 talk it was fantastic to see how Microsoft still innovates and (I only wish that all of the Bing features were available globally… here in the UK we don’t have all of the functionality that’s available stateside).