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A glimpse into the future of computing technology, provided by researchers from IBM, Intel, and Microsoft, reveals photo-realistic virtual words rendered on the fly, desktop file manipulation using hand gestures, and presence information relayed by ubiquitous sensors.
At the Gartner IT/xpo, Jerry Battista, director of technology management for Intel; Eric Horvitz, principal researcher for Microsoft Research; and Paul Bloom, IBM's research executive for communications industries, fielded questions on stage from two Gartner VPs about future technology.
Massively multicore chips from Intel represent a critical component to the future that Battista revealed in a video presentation: real-time, photo-realistic 3-D rendering.
Intel is shipping quad-core chips, Battista said, and silicon with 8, 12, and more cores will arrive soon. Intel has an 80-core, teraflop chip in the lab that consumes a mere 62 watts.
As a sample of what that kind of processing power might be used for, Battista showed a sports highlight generator that can automatically take a two-hour soccer game and condense it into 10 to 15 minutes of highlights. In this kind of application, several dozen processor cores might get divided up to track the players and the ball, to analyze the audio, and to processes the video.
Massively multicore chips also could allow the sort of rendering that takes months to do in animated movies -- ray tracing -- to be done in real-time. As an example of the possibilities, Battista showed Quake 4: Raytraced, a version of the Quake game engine that programmer Daniel Pohl (now an Intel employee) modified to support real-time lighting, bump mapping, specular mapping, soft shadows, moving objects, and other advanced visualization features. The result is an order of magnitude more realistic than the current generation of games. The movement of the characters and their lighting might even rival reality.
Such real-time rendering, said Battista, requires about five quad-core machines running together for a 20 frame-per-second playback rate. Intel's 80-core prototype thus represents more or less the processing threshold to render reality as it happens.
Microsoft's Eric Horvitz predicted "the rise of the intention machine," which describes computers enlisted to predict user intentions and deliver useful information. Think of it as just-in-time manufacturing for your brain. Microsoft, Horvitz said, was spending about 25% of its research budget on artificial intelligence-related projects.
"There will be quite a bit more fluidity and interaction in communicating with computers," Horvitz said. Some of that work is already present in Windows Vista, he said, which tracks application use to cache frequently used programs for faster launch.
Horvitz presented a prototype application called LifeBrowser, which monitors user activity over time on multiple computers and devices. "The idea is to build a really rich timeline ... and be able to navigate that memory backbone and be able to search against it," he said. It's designed to serve a similar function to Google's Web History (not to mention Apple's Time Machine), which tracks Web site usage to generate personalized content recommendations. LifeBrowser appears to be more ambitious in scope, however, combining backup, organization, and recommendation.
Horvitz acknowledged the problems that might arise were he to say, "Hi, I'm from Microsoft, and we have technology that tracks everything you're doing." Microsoft is working on privacy for sensing and personalization technology, he said, and he expected that one solution would be to have all data mining happen locally. (That's an approach that, coincidentally, would prove problematic to a company like Google that benefits from mining data gleaned from the network.)
"Solving the privacy challenge is going to be critical for these technologies," Horvitz said.
Horvitz also showed off surface computing, which is a way to turn any surface into a computer display and input device. A video presentation depicted a lunch box-sized motion tracking and projection unit that created a useable, projected keyboard and projected photos that can be manipulated.
"It really feels nice to put your fingers on the data," Horvitz said as the video presentation showed someone scaling and rotating a Microsoft Virtual Earth map by hand.
The presentation also showed a single projected image being altered by two artists in different places at once as an example of next-generation collaboration.
"We'll be seeing this kind of technology in the offices of the future," Horvitz said.
IBM's Bloom talked about how IBM had shifted its research focus away from pure technology toward a service-orientation to match its business.
"Our business is half in services," Bloom said.
Rather than seeing himself as a researcher, Bloom said he viewed himself "more as a matchmaker" who was trying to understand the pain points in enterprises and provide technology to help. That means more involvement with IBM customers in the research process and as a technology gets commercialized.
Citing a Gartner prediction that 80% of IT systems will take presence information into account by 2009, Bloom described how presence -- knowing where people and things are and how to best interact with them at any given time -- could help businesses.
"Presence information will be a key driver in virtually every enterprise in the future," Bloom said, and detailed how it might, for example, help a hospital manage costs and improve care.
IBM is working on presence infrastructure called Pasta -- Presence Advanced Services for Telecommunications Applications -- to provide presence information to IT systems. It's also developing a service called BusinessFinder, which Bloom described as a "presence-based electronic yellow pages." And IBM is working on Presence Zones, which will allow users to designate modes of contact as they move to different locations and to ensure that messages get routed based on those preferences.
Said Bloom, "Everyone in the future -- and the future is not that far off -- will be sensorized."