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The Magic of Software

Julia Lerman

Software developers often enjoy laughing at the wildly unrealistic portrayals of high-tech computing in movies and TV today, such as the transparent computer screens in the Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report or the flashy fingerprint analysis software programs used on CSI. But perhaps the feats performed on these shows are closer to actualization than we realize.

In 2004, Carter Maslan, from the Platform Evangelism team at Microsoft, wrote some of the first conceptual applications for what was then code-named "Longhorn" (now Windows Vista®), using many of the tools that are now part of the Microsoft® .NET Framework 3.0. After watching a video on the first sample, which was a concept application for the real estate market, I remember thinking that the fantastic imaginings of the TV crime shows were actually coming to life—that life was, in fact, imitating art.

Recently, I was invited to attend an all-day event at Microsoft called Mix n Mash 08, which is a precursor to the Microsoft MIX08 conference to be held in Las Vegas in March. MIX is all about new Web technologies offered by Microsoft. At the Mix n Mash event, we were able to view some already-public projects that Microsoft is working on and discuss their current state and future plans.

One of the highlights was the Microsoft Surface computer (microsoft.com/surface). Surface computing has the visual magic of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) at its core, combined with a multi-touch surface in a table-sized format.

The applications that have been built for it so far range from visually exciting and entertaining to serious business applications. Surface is truly astonishing. The first demonstration included an image of pebbles under water. Running your hand over the tabletop makes the water image move just as real water would—but your hand doesn't get wet!

Another application we enjoyed was finger painting—a wonderful escape for adults. Then we watched as a Zune was placed on Surface, which immediately revealed the device's stored media and allowed us to interact with the media right from the table top. Yet another application transformed Surface into a restaurant table where we were able to order and pay for food and drinks. Surface is so advanced that it looks like a next-generation concept of what computing can do for you, yet it is here today.

At the end of the day, we each had an opportunity to ask a question of Bill Gates, who is leaving the helm of Microsoft in July 2008 to devote his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I asked him about his vision for computing and what he hoped to see carried out after his departure. He explained to us that much of the technical motivation at Microsoft is based on desire to realize the ultimate goal of computer science. That goal, he said, is that someday computers will be "hyper-intelligent," and "as soon as you [achieve] that, then you just ask them what you should do, and they tell you." While this will take decades yet, Microsoft is currently targeting what Gates described as computers that function somewhat like a personal assistant.

Gates also spent some time explaining the company's quest process, in which a group of people is tasked with imagining what computers could do for particular communities (for example, developers, information workers, or consumers) within the next 10 years. The ideas generated during these quests are sent to Microsoft Research for further exploration. Periodic quest summits track the progress of these projects. For example, Microsoft Research is currently working on audio watermarking, color barcodes, and memory retention research, as well as several hundred other initiatives based on truly innovative research in technology.

Speaking of fantastic, one of my favorite absurdities on TV today is when the characters of the crime shows seem to invent pixels that don't exist. It's hilarious to watch them zoom in on a photograph and detect critical, case-solving information in the reflection of someone's sunglasses. However, since I have returned from Mix n Mash 08, I am laughing less and finding myself more and more intrigued by what these television shows seem to be proposing. Certainly, criminal investigators are already benefitting from the fingerprint and facial recognition software, but both of these technologies have a long way to go before they are as effective as they appear on the fictional crime shows. Perhaps the Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning team at Microsoft Research will work on this. As Gates said to us, "What is the magic of software going to do?"

Julia Lerman, a .NET consultant, has been building software for more than 20 years. She is well-known in the .NET community as conference speaker, author, Microsoft .NET MVP, and leader of the Vermont .NET User Group. Her upcoming book is titled Programming Entity Framework. Julia blogs at thedatafarm.com/blog.