Microsoft looks ahead

Bill Gates was in Washington recently saying, among other things, that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in scientific pursuits, and Microsoft Corp. needs to be able to attract more foreign programmers. But what got little attention was the technology coming out of Microsoft Research on display at the Library of Congress. Some of the technology, such as Microsoft's PlayAnywhere, was little more than 'gee whiz.'

PlayAnywhere uses sensors and video to turn any surface into an interactive display. When a Microsoft researcher threw a piece of paper on a table, the system instantly sensed its presence and size and projected a perfectly centered image onto the paper. Another demo projected a moving ball of light that you could actually bounce off your hand.

But other Microsoft Research projects offered more immediately intriguing possibilities, such as the ability to store your entire Windows desktop environment on a USB key storage device. Windows and all your favorite apps don't actually live on the key device. The key just captures the memory state of your office PC in a virtual machine so you can access the actual desktop state stored on your network.

It's basically a platform-independent remote control. Leave your office system the way you want it, and you can call it up from a kiosk or Internet-connected system.

But perhaps the device most compelling in its simplicity was the Community Bar project. It's a plug-in for Internet Explorer that opens a separate window beside the browser where users can chat, post messages and find related links. This would be cool for teenagers up late surfing (and that's basically how the research team was pitching it), but with more enterprise applications becoming Web-based, the tool could be great for collaboration. Say you're working in an enterprise resources planning application and can't find where to enter payroll data. So you need to show someone what you're looking at and ask where to enter the information. The Community Bar could be perfect for that. Microsoft researchers acknowledged the business process application of the Community Bar but were quick to note the software is still in development.

Some agencies would probably need to automatically log online conversations that took place in a Community Bar. That capability still needs to be thought out.

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