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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft's latest is flat-out impressive

Seattle Times business reporter

Desktop computing has a new, more literal definition.

Microsoft researchers are developing a system that turns a tabletop, desktop or other smooth horizontal surface into a computer display and user interface.

Forget the mouse and keyboard. This "surface computing" software follows hand movements to control functions such as zooming in on a map. It can recognize and interact with sheets of paper, cellphones on the desk and other objects.

"I have this very fluid kind of interaction that's very natural," said Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson, as he slid his fingertips across a map of Seattle projected on the table.

Wilson was swarmed by computer science professors attending the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond. The system, called PlayAnywhere, was one of about 40 technologies Microsoft had on display Tuesday.

"Humans are used to gesturing and giving directions," said Guri Sohi, chair of the computer-science department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The way you translate that to a computer is through a mouse and a keyboard."

He found the PlayAnywhere interface a more intuitive way of interacting with computers.

"I think that's much more powerful," Sohi said.

PlayAnywhere is essentially a video camera mounted on a digital projector.

"The video camera is looking at the very same surface that the projector displays on. And that's the key," Wilson said.

The project is meant to test sensing and display technologies, Wilson said, adding that there's no particular product application in the works.

But applications could be just around the corner. Microsoft today is announcing that it is licensing another technology that allows people to interact with three-dimensional images (see story below).

Another technology on display created a richly detailed panoramic image of the Seattle skyline.

This composite photo, which could be easily enlarged to fill a billboard, includes such minuscule details as a pair of work gloves resting on an electric generator at a building site.

The photo is the result of an effort by Microsoft researchers to create the biggest image they could. In total, the panorama includes 800 individual images taken one February morning from the top of a 14-story apartment building next to St. James Cathedral.

The researchers wrote software that stitched the images together and compensated for color, moving objects and alignment to create an apparently seamless picture.

The 4 gigapixel image is 700 times bigger than pictures produced by a typical consumer digital camera, said Matt Uyttendaele, a software development engineer who worked on the project.

Another detail recently discovered in the photo: the faint outline of an airplane that can be seen only by zooming in on one of the 800 frames using the software. To see the plane with the naked eye, you'd have to make a print about half a kilometer wide, Uyttendaele said.

"It would be fun to print something that big," he said, "but where do you hang it?"

Microsoft researchers are also trying to push the traditional family calendar — sticky notes, scratch-outs and all — into the digital age.

"The idea was to build a digital calendar that's as easy to use as paper and available anywhere you want," said Microsoft researcher A.J. Brush, brandishing a Tablet PC and a stylus.

She wrote "Dinner at 7 p.m." in one field and dragged it onto the calendar. The event can be set up to repeat, so if soccer practice is on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the calendar fills it in automatically.

Brush said the calendar has been improved based on feedback from four families.

"A mom in the study said, 'What if my son deletes the dentist appointment,' " Brush said. Now the calendar tracks the last 100 changes made, so the appointment can be undeleted.

This kind of family-friendly digital calendar isn't going to be released anytime soon, Brush said.

"That's coming to the kitchen, but it's still not there," she said.

Benjamin J. Romano: bromano@seattletimes.com

3D-image controls

ready for licensing

Microsoft plans to license technology for manipulating three-dimensional images to a company called EON Reality, part of Microsoft's efforts to make money off technology it has developed in-house.

The technology, called ToughLight, aims to let users physically move images around using their hands. It was developed at Microsoft Research, the arm of the company devoted to cultivating sometimes far-flung ideas that may never make it into a Microsoft product.

EON, based in Irvine, Calif., plans to incorporate the ToughLight technology into existing interactive display products.

The Associated Press

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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