How Microsoft researchers might invent a holodeck

September 2, 2011

Microsoft has an innovative side dedicated to pure research and cutting-edge engineering in areas of computer science that may not have relevance to Microsoft’s bottom line for years, if ever.

Wired recently toured Microsoft’s research facilities to see some of the work Microsoft scientists and engineers are doing to invent the computer interfaces of the future:

  • A bracelet of electrodes on your arm senses how you are moving your hand and fingers, and transmits the data wirelessly to your computer, where the game can be put it to use. You might also use it to control your phone.
  • New research extends the Microsoft Surface computer interface from the tabletop throughout the entire space around it, including the air above the table, adjacent walls and even the floor. The key to this “Light Space” project is a trio of depth cameras that can record 3-D data by sensing how far away each point is. A similar sensor is used in Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, where it helps detect the position and orientation of your body, and can even be used by Kinect hackers to create 3-D maps of rooms. Completing the setup are several high-definition projectors aimed at the tabletop and at a nearby wall.

    In Light Space, you can manipulate photos and video windows on a tabletop, just by using your hands. But the 3-D aspect of the space opens up many other options, and it’s also possible to use virtual spaces to control things. For instance, senior researcher Andy Wilson has used the system create a “menu” icon on the floor.

  • Other research investigates 3D interface devices such as “the wedge,” a display that can “see” you at the same time that it’s showing an image, direct a different image to each eye, or a different image to the person sitting next to you. As you look at the display, you see a 3-D image. You might even see your own reflection in a shiny surface within that image. Move your head, and the 3-D effect still works, because the display is tracking your eyes to ensure each one gets the right image.

    What’s more, the person sitting next to you can see a different 3-D image. The group’s engineers and scientists are working to create next-generation displays using this piece of plastic and see the technology being used is to create more and more sophisticated “windows” into other parts of the world: A sort of hyper-realistic webcam.

  • Surface 2.0 is thinner, cheaper, lighter and stronger than the old version. At 40 inches diagonal, it’s not much thicker than an ordinary TV. You can even hang it on a wall. Surface is interesting enough to developers that more than 350 of them have started creating Surface applications, mostly for use in commercial, retail and hospitality settings..