If you think the iPhone's touch screen is cool, imagine a device that actually sees, reflects and responds to your fingers touching the back of the device.
A prototype of that capability was among many that Microsoft Research showed off at TechFest, Microsoft's annual display of research projects at the company.
LucidTouch isn't very practical in its current form. It's a large handheld computer with a small video camera attached on an arm about a foot's length off the back of the device. But the technology that enables it could easily change now that the concept is proven, said Patrick Baudisch, a researcher at Microsoft.
The current setup includes a touch sensor layer on the back of the device. That senses when a user's fingers are touching it. The camera attached behind it sends an image of the user's fingers to the device, where the image is overlaid lightly, like a shadow, on the screen. Baudisch calls it "pseudo-transparent."
In his prototype, he showed a map on the device screen. Moving his fingers on the back of the device, he could choose an item on the map. The concept solves the "fat finger problem," where your finger covers up the actual spot that you're trying to touch on the screen, he said.
The invention would be particularly useful on very small devices. For example, a watch with a touch screen would be very difficult to use with a finger because users' fingers are quite large relative to the size of the small screen. With LucidTouch, a user could touch an area on the wristband of the watch instead to make choices on the watch face.
The clunky camera arrangement in the prototype might be replaced by a couple of other technologies, including one that another group is working on that would use infrared to pick up finger movements, Baudisch said.
Microsoft researchers also showed off a couple of ideas that use wireless technologies. One group envisions using standard cell phones to help people choose their routes through traffic.
The concept uses phones already on the market that contain GPS (Global Positioning System), microphones and accelerometers. Those sensors are used to collect data about phone users' progress as they travel around a city in a car, sending that information back to a central site that interprets it.
Accelerometers in phones are currently used to detect when a phone is tilted in order to shift the display from landscape to portrait mode. But in this application, the accelerometer is used to sense how often a driver has to hit the brakes, said Ramachandran Ramjee, a Microsoft researcher. The microphone can pick up the sound of the car horn, a possible indication of congestion. The accelerometer can even detect when a user hits a pothole, so the phone could identify issues for road crews.
The data the phone collects is sent wirelessly to a site that compiles it so that users can check the site to find out where there might be congestion on the roads.
"GPS might be good enough in Seattle, but in Bangalore, where traffic is chaotic and there is lots of honking and braking, it would be great to identify this automatically," said Ramjee.
Another wireless invention from Microsoft researchers could help improve the way devices such as the Zune use Wi-Fi networks. While many engineers have worked on systems for optimizing the use of radio spectrum, this one is different, said Thomas Moscibroda, a Microsoft researcher. The project he is working on dynamically narrows the wireless channel that a device is using. Typically, Wi-Fi devices use a 20 MHz-wide channel. Microsoft's software, however, can dynamically adjust that down to 5 MHz or 10 MHz, depending on the application.
Using less of the channel cuts the power consumption of the device and improves range, although it throttles the throughput. In a practical application, a Zune, for example, might use a very narrow channel to look for other nearby Zunes. When a user decided to send a song via Wi-Fi to a friend, the Zune could automatically switch to the full 20 MHz channel to speed up transmission of the song.
Moscibroda and his colleagues used standard hardware components for the Wi-Fi project and combined them with firmware they developed.
Another researcher showed off technology that can dynamically adjust a home network so designated applications get bandwidth priority. A home network may serve multiple computers and multiple users, each with conflicting needs, noted Thomas Karagiannis, a Microsoft researcher. The software he helped develop, which must operate on each of the computers in a home network, can be used to prioritize applications. In one example, a parent who works from home can set her work applications as the top priority, so that a child watching YouTube doesn't slow down her work.
A couple of social-networking applications were also on display at TechFest. Blews is a site that would let users see at a glance which news stories are being blogged about most and which have the most passionate blog postings. A demonstration site lists snippets of political news stories, featuring a tab on the left with the number of liberal sites that have blogged about the story and a tab on the right with the number of conservative sites blogging about it. Small dots on either side indicate the level of emotion in the blog posts.
While some of the projects have public-facing Web sites, some don't. They are created by the 800 researchers at Microsoft Research who work in offices around the world. Some of their projects, but not all, are eventually incorporated into commercial Microsoft projects. Part of the reason for holding the annual TechFest event is to allow other Microsoft employees to see the types of projects the researchers are developing.