Monthly Archives: April 2012

Student creates Kinect-powered “Microsoft Vision” concept for the blind

Note: The product illustrated above is not a real product nor is it officially associated with Microsoft. It is a fictional concept created by a third-party. You will be slapped if you makes a connection to the contrary.

The prestigious advertising awards Cannes Lions and ad agency AKQA has held an advertising campaign competition which challenged students to “advertise a product from a global brand in a way that couldn’t have been done five year ago”.

This year, several students submitted entries based around the Kinect – no doubts inspired by the Kinect Effect. However one in particular, submitted by “Anne Boisen”, stood out for me as not only a great mock ad but also a great product concept with real practicality and potential for the blind.

Assuming a mobile version of the Kinect is technically feasible, the idea Anne proposes it to hook it up with a vest with haptic-feedback capabilities that a blind user would wear. Using the depth sensor and image recognition capabilities of the Kinect, it would alert the person of obstacles and navigational instructions by pressuring different parts of the abdomen.

The other Kinect-inspired concept is a miniature mobile attachment that reads sign language which translates it to text to enable mobile communications for deaf users.

On that note, it’s quite interesting how both Kinect concepts benefit those with disabilities.

Update: Thanks to a heads up from a commenter, the idea is actually realized with a software project at the University of Konstanz.

Bing’s dwindling enthusiasm for developers

Three years ago I launched my “Real Live Search” experiment to much fanfare and press. When developing the prototype, the choice between Google’s and Bing’s Search APIs was almost a no-brainer – Bing was faster, more modern and better documented.

Now year later, the search and maps API ecosystem has become a lot more restrictive. What was once free is now not, and quite pricey I might add. With an obvious opportunity to embrace the web developer ecosystem, it’s puzzling why Bing seems to be joining Google in shooing away developers.

Earlier today I received a phone call from a company Microsoft contracted to manage the licensing for Bing Maps informing me that I need to sign up for a licensing agreement to continue using Bing Maps in my Windows Phone Speedo Plus app (which is now free, go use the map while you can).

Apparently the reason my app doesn’t qualify for the free mobile license is because my app “tracks” user’s locations. Although she seemed just as confused as I was clarifying what that means, there was no hesitance when it came to asking me to start paying them money.

The timing of this, just weeks after Bing announced a huge change to their search API strategy and deprecation of the Answers API last year has led me to realize just how desperate they have become to restrict developer access.

Besides the fact that in my own experience Bing’s results are still as not relevant or helpful as Google’s and the Bing Maps coverage is woefully bad, charging developers a minimum $40/month for any access to search APIs is extremely prohibitive. I certainly wouldn’t have launched or even attempted the Real Live Search idea with that in mind. At least Google has a limited free tier.

For a company that has a reputation for embracing and supporting developers like no other, the changes Bing has and will be rolling out for its developer program is pretty much a slap to the face. And for what? Just a few bucks here and there from hobbyist developers?

Even elsewhere at Microsoft, Windows Live has recently made great strides to opening more access to their services and platform to third-party developers. Bing however seems to have lost the plot.

Valve’s Handbook for New Employees

Even though I haven’t been blogging very often in the past few weeks (busy working on some pretty awesome things), and I don’t usually write about non-Microsoft stuff on this blog, I just had to share this. It’s the Valve Handbook for New Employees. Yes Valve, the most awesome games company in the world.

I had the privilege of visiting Valve’s headquarters in Bellevue (near Seattle and Microsoft) a few years ago and it was one of the most surreal experiences. I felt like a kid on the Willy Wonka factory tour. Their incredible corporate culture shines through this quirky and entertaining document. As an aspiring startup entrepreneur, it’s an inspiration.

Oh and don’t miss out on the glossary at the end of the documentation where you’ll find some gems like,

14-Year-Old Boy—If you see one running your project, don’t worry. That’s actually 57-year-old Josh Weier (see Josh Weier). If you have any extra stem cells, give them to him! He bathes in them daily

Australia—A place that’s either very near or is New Zealand where more than half of Valve’s employees were born.

WFH—Working From Home. What to do if a single snowflake falls out of the sky

Credits to @felipez who I saw tweet about it

Microsoft Research explores context-based app pre-fetching for Windows Phone

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If your mobile apps takes a few seconds too long to start, imagine if your Windows Phone could predict what app you’re about to use and intelligently cache it in the background so it starts instantly when you want to use it. A team at Microsoft Research’s Mobile Computing Research Center have not only thought of this but already have a small demo to show off.

To be presented at the MobiSys 2012 conference in June, the research dubbed “FALCON” is part of a broader Microsoft Research project called “Context Data OS (ConDOS)” which aims to enhance mobile operating systems by integrating and responding to context.

Falcon is one example of this, integrating location and time context to algorithmically anticipate which app the user might want to launch where and when respectively. The video above also demonstrates context from WiFi networks. One of the researchers, Tingxin Yan, describe it as

A context-aware mobile app preloading component for mobile OS. Based on intensive data analysis of app usage across multiple mobile users, FALCON presents a decision engine which exploits temporal and spacial characters of user behaviour to pre-load apps ahead of time, thereby improves the responsiveness of smartphones.

As an applied research group, the Mobile Computer Research Center have already demonstrated by taking their learnings to product like the touch keyboard improvements to Windows Phone. It’s very possible intelligent app pre-caching will make its way to a future of Windows Phone as well.

Kinect scanning becomes serious business with third-party KinectFusion alternatives


Photo credit Tony Buser from Flickr (links below)

Ever since Microsoft Research showed off the extremely impressive KinectFusion demo and shortly after published its research findings, developers have been trying hard to replicate the mad science to give more people the ability to turn everyday objects into 3D models with just a Kinect sensor.

Today Greg Duncan on Channel9’s Coding4Fun posted a video to ReconstructMe, one of the better implementations of such a third-party software that comes very close to what KinectFusion is able to achieve, and then some.

Among the alternatives including PointCloud’s open-source library and Materix 3Dify, ReconstructMe seems to produce the best results.

Currently free for non-commercial use, ReconstructMe allows anyone to take a Kinect sensor connect to a Windows PC and freely roam around objects to generate industry-standard 3D models that can even be printed straight by a 3D printer. And one 3D-print hobbyist, Tony Buser, has done just that.

In fact, Tony is so enthusiastic about Kinect scanning he’s even developed two mods to the Kinect that specifically improve its practical scanning use.

The first is a hand-held attachment that allows him to hold the Kinect like a barcode scanner. And the second, the an ingenious one, is attaching a pair of reading glasses that overcome Kinect’s close-proximity flaw to enable more detailed scanning of smaller objects with impressive results.

As I’m sure the software will improve with time and more people have access to 3D printers, we’ll see more and more practical hobbyists explore the scanning capabilities of the Kinect to make home replication of popular objects a practical and affordable reality.

Workaround for Windows 8 Metro apps crashing with NVIDIA beta driver for dual-GPU users

tl;dr If you have a dual NVIDIA & Intel graphics configuration and are running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview experiencing crashes (black screens) when launching Metro apps, there’s a workaround.

Last week I received a new Dell XPS 15z laptop (which has its own set of issues but I digress) and one of the first things I did was to load the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on it for it to become my primary Windows 8 development machine.

Sooner than later, I discovered launching some Metro applications (mostly third-party ones) would flicker the screen black and eventually send me to the Windows login screen. This was a real roadblocker.

After some quick research and brute-force trial and error, I’ve come up with an elaborate but effective workaround for those of us lucky enough to have an alternate GPU fallback in the system.

  1. Verify you have the latest NVIDIA drivers for Windows 8 (at the time of writing 296.17)
  2. Open the NVIDIA control panel by right-clicking on the desktop
  3. In “Manage 3D settings”, choose “Integrated graphics” as the preferred graphics processor globally
  4. Apply/save the setting
  5. Restart Windows (this is to ensure DWM will use this new setting)
  6. Open “Device Manager” by right-clicking on the bottom left corner of the desktop
  7. Expand the “Display adapters” section
  8. Right click on the NVIDIA item and click “Disable”
    (Depending on your luck, you may be sent to a black screen where you’ll need to restart. The setting may also require a few attempts to take effect. Usually takes me 2 tries.)
  9. Verify the NVIDIA card is disabled in the Device Manager. (It will have a small gray icon)
  10. Try to launch a Metro app which crashed earlier, should work now

Aside from the obvious fact this won’t work if there’s no alternate integrated graphics processor, this workaround also has the side-effect of disabling some display functionality which may be tied directly to the NVIDIA GPU – most likely the HDMI port and of course 3D grunt processing power.

I’m hoping this is only a temporary workaround until NVIDIA fixes the underlying crash in their next beta driver update.

On a related note, AMD users should also be aware that the Windows 8 Catalyst drivers are also plagued with a problem in OpenGL, but there’s a workaround for that too.