Microsoft Research opens “Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interface” in Melbourne

Microsoft Research has landed down under!

At a kangaroo hop away from the Melbourne city center in the suburb of Parkville, the University of Melbourne campus is now home to a Microsoft Research center dedicated to developing new social interactive technologies.

The Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interface is “quite a mouthful” as noted by the University of Melbourne’s Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research, and as such it’s abbreviated as SocialNUI. The State of Victoria Minister for Technology also joked “a big a challenge of setting up the center is the name”.

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Once you look past the buzzword-filled name, the center’s focus is on natural user interface technologies that include and often combine voice, gesture, eye, body and touch inputs like those found in phones, tablets and devices like Xbox Kinect for innovative new social uses and applications.

Microsoft Research Vice President Dr. Tony Hey notes there are four main areas of NUI use research: in private spaces such as those with families, in public spaces such as parks and gatherings, in educational scenarios for formal and informal learning, as well as health and wellbeing applications.

The $8 million dollar joint research center between Microsoft Research, the University of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria will fund the operation for 3 years.

It will explore how such technologies can enable new forms of social and collaborative behaviours, including how people communicate, play, learn and work together in different settings – in the home, the work place, in education, health and public spaces.

The center and its 28 dedicated research staff will join the existing 13 Microsoft Research labs and centers all around the world including Cambridge, Beijing, Bangalore, Cairo, Aachen, Israel and at the Redmond headquarter. The program will also offer internship opportunities for PhD students exchange between this center and other centers around the world.

Although research has not yet officially begun at this center, an example of the research that might be taking place was demonstrated by a not-yet-published NUI research project from the Cambridge center.

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The video demonstrated a gesture add-on for Windows 8 that allowed the use of hand movements above the keyboard to quickly open the start menu, peek and pin applications as well as searching.

It achieved this by a wall-mounted Kinect sensor unconventionally pointing downwards at the keyboard. The depth sensor allows the distinguish the hand whether it is resting or hovering above the keyboard (something traditional camera sensors cannot do alone).

I look forward to what cool research projects will be coming out of the Melbourne center in the years to come.

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