Microsoft Research shows off AI receptionist, personal assistant and elevators at TEDx

Eric Horvitz is the co-director of Microsoft Research Redmond and is a distinguished scientist in the field of artificial intelligence.

This past Feburary he gave a TEDxAustin talk about his passion for designing automated systems that can not only do tasks well but actually understand people’s needs.

Distinguished Scientist and co-director at Microsoft Research, Eric Horvitz, shares the human side of advancing machine intelligence.

An admitted advocate for empowering machines to perform more fluidly with us, he explains how computational systems will complement human cognition in order to anticipate our needs and help us prepare for inevitable surprises of all scale and size In nurturing and supportive ways.

Throughout the talk he provides a few examples of the type of AI systems he’s been working on at Microsoft Research. Watch these.

Receptionist

Personal assistant

Intern making appointment with personal assistant

(This is my favourite.)

Third generation “magical” elevator

If this peeks your interest you can watch the entire 23 minute talk here.

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Submit ideas to Marriott Hotel’s “Travel Brilliantly” to win free stay

I’ve done my fair share of travelling over the past couple of years while I’ve been covering conferences and product launches. Whilst I love exploring new cities and countries, a hotel is one part of the travel experience that seems oddly familiar, anywhere I might be. In fact I’ve even grown familiar with some hotels.

The Marriott Hotel & Resorts group has rebranded and reinvented its hotels and travel by thinking outside of the box and asking people to submit their own ideas. The competition “Travel Brilliantly” which first started in the US is now going global and is now open to Australians.

For the chance to win one of four $1,500 Marriott gift vouchers, Marriott is crowdsourcing suggestions for ideas on the future of travel around four different areas: Style & Design, Eat & Drink, Health & Wellness and Technology.

As a judge for the technology category, I wanted to come up with an idea to personalise the hotel experience with an NFC keycard to replace the generic plastic door card.

aumhrtab2kol2sketchBesides the obvious benefits that it could be reused from hotel to hotel and unlock doors without taking it out of the wallet by proximity, the storage capability of NFC could also be used to store personalisation data for hotels.

For example, preferences for room lighting and curtains, air conditioning temperature, favorite TV channels, morning alarm timers and even shower hot water settings could all be remembered by the personalised card.

Now imagine walking into different Marriott hotel rooms around the world and not having to fumble with the thermostat, TV and alarm clock. It’s all set up and ready to go, exactly how you like it. (Perhaps I’m a little bit weird but so far every hotel room I’ve walked into has either been too cold or too hot.)

So that’s my idea. If you have a travel idea involving technology or any of the other categories, and could use a holiday staying at any Marriott hotel and splurge with $1,500, simply head over to http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/MarriottTravelBrilliantly and submit your entry. It’s easy and free to enter.

Even if you’re a little short on ideas, it’s pretty fun to browse and vote on any of the ideas already submitted like the body temperature sensor that’s connected to the air conditioning and shower.

Disclosure: The promoters are providing compensation for my participation in this promotional campaign.

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Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop: falling in love with ergonomics, again

I fell in love with my first set of Microsoft ergonomic keyboard and mice three years ago. It wasn’t love at first sight but it was lasting love. In fact it was only last month when we had to part ways because I had worn down the rubber surface on the mouse so much it was entirely eroded and no longer usable.

Ever since I’ve been searching for a fitting replacement. I was almost tempted to purchase the same set again but was put off by the now out-of-date aesthetics. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with that thought since the Microsoft Hardware designers appears to have tailored the product refresh cycle exactly for the product lifecycle.

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I’ve had a chance to use the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop for a good week now – doing serious coding, typing and Photoshopping, and the keyboard and mice have a lot more to offer than just good look. Even above and beyond their predecessors, it’s better in almost every manner.

Keyboard

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The keyboard is no doubt the first thing to grab your attention. If the curve of the previous Microsoft ergonomic keyboard wasn’t enough just as a functional feature of the product, it has now been accentuated to become an uncanny design feature as well. Although it screams a little bit “look at we can do with plastic”, it doesn’t have any impact on the usability of the keyboard.

The more practical changes to the keyboard are the split spacebar, shorter key travel, media buttons and “inline” caret navigation keys (page up, page down, arrows).

For better or worse, the split spacebar of this keyboard is not the combined backspace and spacebar of other Microsoft keyboards recently introduced. This particular split just means you can press the spacebar with less pressure which my thumb welcomes.

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Personally, I’m a big fan of short travel keys as found on most modern laptops and this keyboard strikes a good balance between travel and ergonomics. Even though the keys are nowhere as short as the ones on Apple laptops, it has the responsive and “tappy” feel of the MacBook Air’s keyboard which I thoroughly enjoy. It makes typing feel “light”, which it should be.

Even though this ergonomic keyboard has the same variable-width keys as Microsoft’s previous ergonomics, this is still a keyboard with a high learning curve. But of course, it pays off, big time. It took about 2 days to switch from a standard keyboard to reclaim the same typing speed and error rate.

The designers of this keyboard clearly tried very hard to make this a “compact” keyboard by reducing both the width and height of the keyboard. Both of these are actually most of my frustrations to-date.

The first has to do with the caret navigation buttons (insert, delete, home, end, page up/down, arrows) which is now merged with the rest of the standard character and control keys on the right side of the keyboard. Without any physical spacing or gaps, this makes muscle memory extremely difficult.

To make matters worse, the right “CTRL” key is actually narrower than the “SHIFT” key which breaks the vertical alignment. (See one of the top photos for example)

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The other, the media keys, is a hybrid of the function keys (F1-F12). Although this practice is quite common and not too much of an issue, however this keyboard doesn’t actually have an FN button. Instead, it’s a physical toggle switch, on the far top right corner.

Whilst I appreciate the simplicity of not having to press a button combination for changing or muting the volume, for professional users who frequently uses both volume and function keys, the toggle is a nightmare. It’s impossible to remember what the toggle is set to and it forces the hand to leave the normal resting position to switch.

The only redeeming factor of the compact factor is the separate but included wireless numpad. It’s always convinient to type lots of numbers on the numpad and I keep mine relatively close. And since it reduces considerable space from the right of the keyboard, the mouse is that much closer.

Mouse

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Speaking of the mouse, I firmly believe the mouse is the real star of this package. This may be the best computer mouse I’ve ever used.

The shape might be daunting to anyone to who has never used an ergonomic mouse before but as soon as you put your hand on it, it instantly feels like your hand is resting. While I don’t think shape, angle and weight of this mouse has changed much from the very comfortable Natural Ergonomic Mouse 7000, the tracking, materials and scroll wheel are much improved.

Like a big pebble you just want to hold, this mouse captures most people’s attention and it looks remarkably elegant on a clean desk. Because it’s a BlueTrack sensor, it works better on more surfaces than your traditional sensor or laser.

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The rubber material on the thumb grip is a vastly improved over the previous generation’s “gel-like” fitting. Not only does it feel textured, it has an ingenious semi-tactile back button built right into the grip. Admittedly at first I was a little worried it would be difficult to press, but it turns out to be an effortless click of the thumb.

Thankfully this new mouse also features a clicky scroll wheel – unlike the free scroll wheel of the past. Although Microsoft seems to have jumped between the two types for various products along the timeline, I’m a firm believer that scroll wheels should be tactile, especially on Windows where scrolling is line-based (instead of pixel-based in Mac OS X).

Last but not least, the blue Windows 8 Start button. I haven’t used it once. I don’t think I ever will.

Conclusion

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The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is an impressive package. Both the keyboard and mice are extremely comfortable to use. Although I wish the keyboard didn’t have some of its quirks, this will be my keyboard and mouse of choice for the office.

For any owners of an aging Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000 and have been looking for the upgrade, well this is clearly it. And for anyone else has been tempted by ergonomic keyboards if for nothing but the comfort alone, then this is a product you can’t look past.

The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop retails in Australia at AUD$129.95 and is listed to be avilable in retailers from this month (October 2013). The mouse is available on its own for AUD$59.95.

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Launching Omny, the personal radio app powered by Windows Azure

If you haven’t noticed, I haven’t been posting nearly as much as I used to over the past year. Partly it’s because I’ve been playing a lot of DOTA2 (or the Drow Ranger game as I’ve come to play it), but more seriously it’s because I’ve been working at my startup to revolutionise how people listen to the radio on a mobile device.

I know the word “revolutionise” is very much a cliché for tech startups but I do think we’ve come up with an easier, more interactive, and all around better way for the busy mobile individual to listen to news, entertainment, music and important updates on the go.

It’s called Omny and it’s available free on the Australian App Store starting today. To get a quick overview, here’s a quick video we made.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes it is coming to the US (and other countries around the world) as well as Android and Windows Phone. Truth be told, we’re a small team and we wanted to make sure it at least works awesomely for some people rather than not so well for a lot of people.

Some of you might remember an app I launched last year called SoundGecko, which is a text-to-speech reading service for websites and RSS feeds. Omny expands on that idea to provide a more diverse range of content such as professional radio shows, podcasts and music through Spotify, Rdio, Songl and iTunes.

The two products share a similar goal though, to let mobile users stay informed and up-to-date on the go using their ears instead of just their eyes. Some people have called it the “Flipboard for your ears”.

At the backend, Omny is powered almost entirely by Windows Azure. We perform all the services integration (fetching Facebook feeds & notifications, emails from Gmail and Outlook, calendar from Google Calendar, weather and more in the future) in the cloud as well as algorithmically picking the best content that each user might like.

Right now, the app has access to a decent range of content across all topics and integration to some third party services but we plan on continuously expanding and improving the “library” by adding more over time. In fact we’ve even designed the system to be extensible by third parties but that’s for a later time. As a quick teaser for the developers amongst you, one weekend I quickly hacked together an integration for Omny that lets me listen to service delays on the train lines I travel on in Melbourne.

I hope my Aussie readers will get a chance to try out Omny. I would love to hear what you all think.

The odd new Surface 2 ad, featuring my face

Over the last few hours, Microsoft unveiled the 2nd generation Surface tablet at a press event in NYC. Soon after they posted the product ad they screened during the presentation to YouTube. While I was sleeping, sharp-eyed Twitter user @Sunil noticed a brief onscreen appearance of something I did not expect at all, my face.

Analysing more closely, the screenshot is actually of Skype for Windows 8 which features my previous profile photo. Appearing alongside me is also the profile of my buddy Rafael Rivera. On the top right corner, it clearly shows that the user is “Paul Thurrott”.

So what appears to have happened is that the ad production company decided to show a lot of Windows 8 screens in quick succession in the video. When it came to actually sourcing the screenshots they must have just used a search engine for pictures that contained Windows 8. The original screenshot was actually published in a WinSuperSite.com article and Paul asked for permission to use my profile photo.

This theory would also explain another bizarre appearance of a DeviantArt concept of Windows 8 in an earlier version of the ad originally posted to YouTube but now pulled. Rafael Rivera tweeted a screencap.

The ad is embedded below. My split second of fame appears at 0:57.

New “FilmSpeed” ad for Forza Motorsport 5 elegantly shows off the power of speed

More than a decade ago, when I was still in high school, I thought it might have been a cool idea to place a set of advertising billboards side-by-side in the subway tunnels so that when the train travelled at a fast enough speed, the motion would blend individual frames to create a moving image.

Now the Xbox “Forza Motorsport 5” team have used the same idea, with a lot more technical precision, to create one of the most elegant ads I’ve seen for a racing computer game.