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Thursday, March 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Microsoft's researchers display wares at TechFest

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter

TED S. WARREN / AP
The face of Yi Zhou, a researcher at Microsoft's Beijing research center, is digitized as she is filmed yesterday at TechFest.
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As another round of computer worms attacked PCs around the world yesterday, scientists in Microsoft's advanced research division demonstrated a possible solution.

The prototype technology is called Shield because it basically installs a shield over vulnerabilities found in software, temporarily protecting the systems until a permanent security patch is developed.

"We think this should be part of the process of defending against vulnerabilities," said Helen Wang, a researcher in Redmond developing the technology with counterparts at Microsoft labs in Beijing and Cambridge, England.

Shield and a handful of security technologies were among hundreds of research projects on display at the fourth annual "TechFest," a megascience fair held by Microsoft Research on the company campus.

The closed event is intended to expose research done in company labs to product teams and encourage them to collaborate. Microsoft expects 5,000 employees — from Chief Software Architect Bill Gates on down — to attend the two-day event.

TechFest also shows off the range of interests of the world's largest software company, which is using some of its resources to explore how tomorrow's computers will be used, developed and connected.

About 700 of the company's 56,000 employees work in the research group, which started in 1991. It has 450 employees in Redmond and the rest at labs in Beijing, Cambridge, San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

In addition to their work in computer science, researchers are also involved in biology, physics and other scientific fields that take advantage of the relatively low cost and high power of today's PCs, said Rick Rashid, a former professor who oversees the division.

Journalists were allowed to see a handful of the TechFest demonstrations yesterday, including:

• Sports-editing software that lets TV viewers select certain action sequences, enabling them to view only the shots in a basketball game or the hits in a baseball game if they choose.

Researchers in Beijing have so far tuned the software to work with basketball, football, soccer and baseball. They hope to see the feature in future versions of Media Center PCs that play and record television shows.
 
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It's helpful "if you come home after a long day and you only want to see the shots," said researcher Baogang Yao.

Yao and his co-workers have not merged the feature with face-recognition software that Microsoft is developing, so it will be some time before viewers can push a button and watch only plays by a particular player.

• Software to store, filter and display digital photos, including a program that selects and displays the best photos in a sequence, based on criteria such as sharpness and subject matter.

• New controls for manipulating the screen displays on advanced wireless phones. They let users "jump" around an image such as a map by pressing and holding the phone keys, similar to the way players jump around video games.

• SenseCam, a tiny camera that could be worn like a pendant and capture events throughout the day. It can take images when there are abrupt movements, temperature fluctuations or even changes in the wearer's heartbeat. The images could then go into one of the digital diary databases that researchers are developing.

Some technologies may appear in Longhorn, the next version of Windows due in 2005 or 2006.

Wang said the Shield still needs more research, and it's not clear when or how it would reach the market, but she said the security-product group has expressed interest. One approach may be to bundle the technology into Windows where it could be quickly updated with a tiny amount of software as new vulnerabilities are discovered.

Similar technology called "wrappers" has been available for years on the Unix operating system and it's urgently needed for Windows, said Fred Cohen, a Burton Group security analyst in Livermore, Calif.

"It's a pleasant surprise that they're doing this," said Cohen, who wrote a report months ago calling for a similar solution.

The usual sequence is that Microsoft finds a vulnerability in its software and releases a patch. Then hackers use information from the patch to write a virus that exploits the vulnerability.

It used to take a year or so for viruses to appear after a patch was issued. That gave companies time to test patches before installing them, to be sure they didn't break their systems somehow. But they have less and less time for testing because viruses are appearing so quickly. By the end of the year viruses could appear within hours of a patch, Cohen said.

The Shield would give companies time to test patches without being attacked.

"None of these worms would have been effective if this sort of thing was in place," Cohen said.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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