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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Microsoft looks to the future
By Dan Simmons
BBC Click Online reporter in Brussels

Microsoft has been showing off some of the latest toys and applications that we could be using in a few years' time.

Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons went to see what will be in Microsoft's shop window
Brussels is famous as the home of confectionary flair and Microsoft says it too can make life sweet.

It recently set up a stall right next to Europe's parliament to showcase some of its research projects.

Despite the many bust-ups Microsoft has had with the EU over competition law, MEPs were among the first people to find out what the software giant is planning.

Robotics

First up was something for the younger generation, which many adults will want to play with too - a new programming language for robots designed to make it easier for children to understand how robotics works.

The palette offers a range of movement controls, and it is hoped the easy interface will encourage more school children to take up engineering. You can even tell your robot what to do using a mobile phone.

Imagine watching a move from any angle, you control the camera.

And we are not just talking about the various views a broadcaster or filmmaker might offer you via digital TV or DVD.

We are talking about the Matrix effect, which shows lots of angles of one image, achieved in the movies by encircling a person with cameras and mixing the images together.

Now the same effect can be achieved using just one picture.

The camera position moves around a moving subject, and then the subject can be viewed from a theoretical camera position which never existed.

Other possibilities include 'dual focus,' in which two characters at different focal depths can simultaneously be pin sharp.

Although sparking a lot of excitement at the show, some commentators pointed out a few difficulties the new system might face.

Alain Ruello, a journalist from Les Echos newspaper claims: "You have to deal with the movie industry to make films differently and to use a number of cameras. So you will have to start from zero, from new content, to be able to use this software."

Microsoft expects to have a PC version of this software available within five years. They cite the limits of how much information a DVD can hold as being a major problem.

But with the breakthrough in DVD storage by British scientists, which we reported on Click Online two weeks ago, being an armchair Stephen Spielberg may not be too far off.

Innovation

One of the major themes of the expo was how to improve the interface between computer and user.

Jean-Philippe Courtois
We believe that visual or social interaction with your PC or device is going to be very important.
Jean-Philippe Courtois, CEO of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa
One idea is to pool the bandwidth of several wireless devices at once to improve download speeds from the internet. That should be available within the next year.

Another idea which should be on the way soon allows us to send our own pictures, integrated with maps on the web, to mobile phones. Helpful for directions to dinner guests, for example.

Other areas are being prioritised as well.

Jean-Philippe Courtois, CEO of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa explains: "We believe that there are a few breakthroughs that need to happen, probably in the next few years. Speech recognition is one of them, and we've done a lot of work in that area.

"We believe that visual or social interaction with your PC or device is going to be another very important one. In a way, feeling the emotion of a user, the PC looking at you and trying to understand what you're going to do in a smart way."

Grabcut

The personal extends to our memories as well. Ever taken several pictures of the same view and tried to stitch them together? New software, called Grabcut, does it automatically in seconds.

And if you do not like an object in a picture you can simply draw around it and the software instinctively knows what you want to remove, isolates the image, and it vanishes.

The impressive part is the detail with which it fills the background, just as if the removed object was never there.

This kind of showcase day is something Microsoft need to do more of. It has sometimes been accused of following good ideas rather than having them, and if it wants a reputation for innovation it will have to continue to come up with more.


Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 0745, 2030, Sunday at 0430, 0645 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. It is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0745 and BBC One: Sunday at 0645. Also BBC World.

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