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5 ways Microsoft will enable your PC to see, sense, and understand

Mark Hachman | April 23, 2014
Two years ago, Microsoft's Kinect for Windows literally opened the PC's eyes. And now Microsoft researchers are teaching it to see.

Real-time tracking of animals (and you)

While the Microsoft Research Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences group set out to assist biologists and other animal researchers in tracking and learning about animals in the wild, the technology they developed could certainly apply to either law enforcement or the military.

Lucas Joppa, a scientist with Microsoft Research, said his research consists of three elements: Zootracer, a software algorithm for tracking objects recorded on video; Mataki, a 7-gram, GPS-enabled tracking device; and an unmanned drone designed to wirelessly communicate and even lock on to whatever's carrying the Mataki device, such as an elephant, or a car.

Zootracer starts off rather dumb: it can distinguish objects recorded on video or via Kinect, but just barely. Joppa demonstrated how the user needed to "teach" the algorithm how to identiy an object, like a bee, as it moved between points. But by pausing and identifying the bee multiple times. the sensor began tracking it as it moved around the screen.

That's fine, as bees go. But to learn more about larger animals and their environments, Microsoft developed Mataki, a sensor package that can be attached to an animal. Using short-range wireless mesh communication, Mataki can dump its knowledge onto another sensor. And if that's not good enough, Microsoft developed drones that can swoop in and capture the data — or, using the GPS data streaming from the sensor, "lock on" and follow a specific Mataki sensor from the air. 

The latter capability certainly should raise some eyebrows. But it might not be surprising if Joppa is quietly hired away by Amazon. Shopping or courier services should know exactly where you are, and cutting delivery times by a few minutes could mean more efficient shopping drones — even if they're science fiction for now.

Printable electronics

3D printing is becoming ever more ubiquitous, but to do so requires an investment of time, money, and materials into a 3D printer and substrate. Alternatively, "subtraction" printers can etch away a block of material. In some ways, we've been "3D printing" computer chips for decades, etching away silicon using photolithography. Likewise, "printing" computer circuits using metallic ink from an inkjet printer has become almost commonplace, to the point where you can do it from home.

Microsoft researcher Steve Hodges (beginning at 1:13) showed off an interesting combination of the two, however. Using a small number of tiny printed circuit boards with embedded chips, Hodges printed the metallic connective traces with a $100 modified inkjet printer onto a piece of photo paper. Then, using electrically conductive double-sided tape from 3M, he simply stuck the micro-PCBs to the paper. Voila: a quick-and-dirty homebrewed product, such as a motion sensor.

 

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