March 3, 2009

Microsoft Blazes New Trail With Futuristic Products

Researchers at Microsoft are working to create a "Jetsons-like future" with the creation of a virtual personal assistant designed to help those of us unable to afford a real-world helper.

Named Laura, the virtual assistant appears as a talking head on a screen, to which users can speak and ask for help with everything from setting appointments to scheduling travel.

Even more alluring, however, is Laura's ability to make complex decisions about those in front of her, according to factors such as their dress, whether they seem impatient, their status and preferred appointment times.

Instead of being merely a dumb terminal, Laura represents a more complex attempt to recreate the relationship between an executive and an assistant that typically develops over the course of many years.

"What we're after is common sense about etiquette and what people want," Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft who specializes in machine learning, told the New York Times.

Microsoft aims to put a Laura on the desk of everyone who has ever longed for a personal assistant.  Laura and similar devices represent Microsoft's potential path for diversifying beyond the personal computer, sales of which are on the decline.

Microsoft, along with longtime partner Intel, has stepped up its exploration of new areas of computing. Last week, the company unveiled a number of software systems built to power everything from medical devices to futuristic games and even smart elevators.  And on Monday, Intel announced its plans to extend its low-cost Atom chip from laptops to automobiles, robots and home security systems.

The moves correlate with current trends of people seeking less, not more, from their PCs.  Indeed, businesses and consumers have started moving away from full-featured desktop computers in recent years, and even their interest in costly laptops has started to wane.

Instead, the fastest-selling products in the PC market today are netbooks -- lower-cost, compact laptop that mainly handle basic tasks like surfing the Internet and checking email.

Nevertheless, Intel and Microsoft will surely remain focused on the PC market for the foreseeable future.  The vast majority of Microsoft's $60 billion and Intel's $38 billion in annual revenue comes from the sale of traditional computer products.

But with customers no longer seeking ever-faster PCs, the two leading companies are seeking to redefine what the latest and greatest computer might be.

"The PC is still very healthy, but it is not showing the type of growth that comes through these exciting new areas," Patrick P. Gelsinger, a senior vice president at Intel, told the New York Times.

Whether they can truly translate prototypes such as Laura into real, sellable products remains to be seen, and both companies have a track record of hyping up their ambitious visions of the future.  In 2003, Microsoft famously predicted everyone would soon be wearing wristwatch computers called Spot watches, a project the company quietly abandoned last year.

However, this time the underlying silicon technology may have caught up.  For instance, Laura requires a high-end chip with eight processor cores to handle all of the artificial intelligence and graphics power needed to give the system its somewhat lifelike appearance and function.  Such a chip would typically reside inside a server in a company's data center.

And Intel is now seeking to move similar levels of processing power down to tiny chips that can fit into just about any device.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, predicts that by 2013 computing systems will be about 50 to 100 times more powerful than today's systems, while consuming roughly the same amount of power.  

"We think that in five years' time, people will be able to use computers to do things that today are just not accessible to them," Mr. Mundie said.

"You might find essentially a medical doctor in a box, so to speak, in the form of your computer that could help you with basic, nonacute care, medical problems that today you can get no medical support for."

Microsoft predicts such technology will translate into a future filled with a vast number of devices better equipped to deal with artificial intelligence, speech and the processing of enormous databases.

Toward that end, Microsoft has developed a projection system that allows users to manipulate large video images with their hands. Microsoft's researchers used the technology to project an image of the universe onto a homemade cardboard dome, and then manipulated the picture to expand the Milky Way.

"You could hook this up to your Xbox and have your own crazy gaming projection system," Andrew D. Wilson, a senior researcher at Microsoft, told the New York Times. And teachers could use the  technology as well as a way to make certain subjects more interesting to students.

The technology behind Laura could see applications in a variety of fields.  For instance, Mr. Horvitz predicted an elevator that senses when people are conducting a conversation, and keeps its doors open until the talking stops.

Intel confirmed that more than 1,000 of its products are being designed for its forthcoming Atom chip, which the company hopes to expand to nontraditional computing markets, something the company believes has a $10 billion market potential with 15 billion devices by 2015, according to Mr. Gelsinger.


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