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Originally published March 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 3, 2005 at 9:34 AM

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Microsoft's festival of future

Microsoft researchers have put a new twist on telling time, creating a digital wall clock with hands for each member of the family.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft researchers have put a new twist on telling time, creating a digital wall clock with hands for each member of the family.

Instead of numbers, the hands point to places — work, school, home — and can track a person's location to show where he or she is at any time. Not good for teenagers, perhaps, but something parents might find interesting.

Don't expect to buy the clock in stores anytime soon. That invention, and hundreds of others, were on display yesterday at Microsoft's annual science fair of the most futuristic ideas from the company's research division.

Microsoft Techfest, as it is called, is designed to expose employees to projects being developed in Redmond and Microsoft laboratories around the world. Employees have a hard time following who is working on what in such a large company, and Techfest tries to connect some and inspire others.

Chairman Bill Gates is expected to tour the event today and might even take in a lecture on such topics as "bridging the gap between science data and databases" or "impromptu communication." Reporters were allowed in yesterday, but Microsoft kept them away from all but a few inventions.

The people-tracking clock is an idea out of Microsoft's research laboratories in Cambridge, England. Technology in cellphones these days can easily track a person's location, and that information could be sent to the clock to be seen by those at home.

"It sounds very trivial but it has very nice properties," said Andrew Herbert, the managing director of the Cambridge lab. "You can glance at it and know where everyone is."

In another project, researchers in Redmond have made it possible for a person to browse the digital photos on their computer while away from home by using one of Microsoft's sophisticated SmartPhone cellphones. The computer would scale down the images and send them to the cellphone for viewing, but not for download.

A person could also use the phone to command a PC to send the photo to another device, such as a digital photo frame in the in-laws' living room.


Do you know where your children are? A futuristic "family-awareness clock" does.

Susan Dumais, a Microsoft researcher specializing in search, showed a program that can personalize a Web search based on e-mail messages and other documents stored on a computer.

For example, if you're a big Jaguar fan who collects digital pictures of the cars and sends e-mail about them, your Web search for jaguar would more likely produce sites about the car, not the animal.

Many of today's Web search engines don't take those personal aspects into account, Dumais said. "That leads to a less than ideal search experience."


Researchers in Redmond also demonstrated a way Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program could categorize messages based on the user's relationship to the senders. The application would be ideal for someone who returns to the office from a long vacation to find 500 e-mails waiting, said researcher A.J. Brush.

"Let's quickly bring to the front those people that you have a relationship with," she said. The program establishes those relationships by remembering the people you've e-mailed.

Brush said her team interviewed Microsoft employees and found that 71 percent of those surveyed get more than 50 e-mail messages a day, and 31 percent spend an hour or more dealing with the new messages.


Karishma Kiri talks about a typical rural business computer kiosk in India at Microsoft's Techfest in Redmond, which included researchers from the company's newest laboratory, in Bangalore, India.

Andrew Birrell, a researcher in Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif., center, is working on ways for people to visit a computer at an Internet cafe, for example, and create the environment of their own computer by inserting a flash-based memory disk.

A person could partially write a letter at home, for example, load the information onto the disk and finish the letter at another computer, whether or not that PC had the same applications.

Researchers from Microsoft's newest laboratory, in Bangalore, India, were also at Techfest to talk about the company's research interests in that country.

Only a fraction of the 600,000 villages in India have a computer for residents to access.

Microsoft is trying to understand the needs of those residents in a rapidly emerging market, said Kentaro Toyama, the assistant managing director of the Bangalore lab.

"All the stuff we design is for people who work in air-conditioned offices and do office work," he said.

"The more time you spend, the more you realize just how much work we have to do as an industry to meet people's needs."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or

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