Microsoft looks beyond search

Redmond (WA) - Microsoft's Research division today opened the doors to the firm's annual TechFest, highlighting research projects that allow a first look at Microsoft products that we may be seeing in the not too distant future. Microsoft is showcasing more than 100 different projects, but most share one key theme: Search, organize and present data.

Who would have thought a few years ago that search would become on of the key business areas of Microsoft? The company's first presentations at the TechFest 2007 leave little doubt that Microsoft's focus has changed - the initial demonstrations of the company that highlight some of the work of more than 750 scientists in Microsoft Research division solely focused on finding, organizing, sharing and presenting various types of data.

Every single presentation explained the challenges of basic search. In a next step, Microsoft is looking into ways to allow easier access to relevant data and create smarter technologies that can connect the dots between different applications to provide more comprehensive and meaningful search results.

Among the projects presented was "Mix," essentially a virtual scrapbook that can combine various types of search results from different offline and online sources. The search results are displayed on one page and create a new type of content - consisting only of search results - that can be shared with family members, friends and colleagues. In some cases, Mix can replace the purpose of a webpage, Microsoft said. It was unclear when this software will be commercially available, but the company said that it is working "to get it out there."

"Community Buzz" is another project that tries to extract the information beyond search. The software is able to automatically generate "tags" from discussion topics, for example from blogs, analyze discussions and discover topic trends in chart-type presentations.

Microsoft also showed several demos of "implicit search features", a capability that is based on the idea to detect user interests and predict user search behavior. For example, a search for "Cubs" following a visit to baseball-related websites would return search results related to the Chicago Cubs, rather than to lion cubs. Upcoming search technology will also be able to extract keywords from texts and connect the information to definitions on Wikipedia or Encarta, to images on Flickr or videos on YouTube.

Not unexpectedly, Microsoft also side-swiped Google with an apparently very early version of a "World Wide Telescope." While Google Earth or Microsoft's Virtual Earth are limited to data on Earth, this new project expands into space with the help of space images taken by the Hubble telescope. So far, the "World Wide Telescope" included little more than a few images, but it does not take much to imagine that more coverage of the sky and the addition of rich data sets could translate into a valuable educational tool.