Microsoft research: From cells to solar system

Microsoft research: From cells to solar system
REDMOND, Wash. (AP) - Microsoft researchers from around the world gathered at the software maker's headquarters Tuesday to show off projects dealing with subjects as tiny as individual cells and as large as the universe.

The WorldWide Telescope, an application that lets computer users zoom from one galaxy to the next, was an atypically tangible demonstration at the annual science fair-like gathering that usually shows off early-stage prototypes.

Researcher Curtis Wong, who had walked journalists through a bare-bones version of the program a year ago, showed how users can explore on their own or take a guided tour designed by an astronomer. The program, which knits together images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, among others, will be freely available sometime in the spring.

Other groups demonstrated projects that use data collected from sensors for more terrestrial purposes. U.K.-based researchers showed how a system of sensors, radio frequency identification tags and GPS data were combined to track the feeding habits of a local bird population, as a way to understand how changes in climate and other variables affected the species.

Another team displayed lightweight sensors that can fit in the palm of the hand and can last four years on two AA batteries. They pass along information "like a bucket brigade," Redmond-based researcher Feng Zhao said, using protocols developed for the Internet that his group modified to use less energy and memory. Zhao said one practical application would be more efficient heating and cooling of warehouse-sized data centers, depending on which small areas the sensors reported were too hot or too cold.

There were also tools designed especially for scientists, from an application that helps them "program" without having to write code to an entirely new programming language to model cellular processes.

A handful of rough prototypes were built to ease common frustrations of today's Web-savvy PC user. Researchers devised an Internet Explorer plug-in for people in different locations to save search results and share notes; they also came up with a plug-in that makes the pages visited during a Web search session more accessible.

Other researchers built on existing social networking services. One project gave people reading e-mail in Microsoft Outlook more information about the senders and other recipients, including photos and past e-mails. Another helped people consolidate their friends' social network profiles from different sites in one place.

Microsoft has 800 researchers in six labs around the world.