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Enhanced VR among Microsoft research advances at CHI 2016

10th May 2016
Jordan Mulcare

Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence aren’t just improving the quality of information available to us — they’re also making it easier to interact with the devices we use to retrieve and manipulate the information. At ACM CHI 2016, the premiere conference on human-computer interaction, Microsoft will present research advances that could vastly improve user interaction in a number of ways and contribute to the company’s ambition to deliver more personal computing experiences.

The conference, which takes place May 7 to 12th in San Jose, California, offers a glimpse into the near-future, when we will be able to do things like use mobile devices in new ways and more easily navigate through virtual environments. Advances in VR have thus far mainly been in the realm of optics, rendering and audio technologies. But improving haptics — the sense of touch — remained elusive until now.

The key objective in virtual reality is establishing a sense of presence. It’s easy to suspend disbelief if the environment looks real, but when you reach out to touch a virtual object and your hand goes through it the illusion is shattered. And the interaction itself changes the virtual scene, requiring the whole environment to be redrawn or rebuilt.

A framework called haptic retargeting essentially 'hacks' human perception and leverages the dominance of vision when our senses conflict. This allows for the development of much more complex virtual environments that can have many more virtual objects with which to interact.

Andy Wilson, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said the long-term implications of this research will be limited only to the imagination of designers and developers. The research is detailed in Haptic Retargeting: Dynamic Repurposing of Passive Haptics for Enhanced Virtual Reality Experiences and was developed in collaboration with the University of Southern California and the University of Waterloo.

Imagine a mobile device that intelligently anticipates your intended action even before you touch the screen. That’s what’s being presented in Pre-Touch Sensing for Mobile Interaction. Ken Hinckley, a principal researcher at Microsoft who led the project, said the research is based on a whole different philosophy of interaction design.

The research uses the phone’s ability to sense how you are gripping the device as well as when and where the fingers are approaching it.

“It uses the hands as a window to the mind,” Hinckley said.

By allowing the interfaces to adapt to you, on the fly, they are always tailored to the specific context of how you are currently holding or using your phone.

“I think it has huge potential for the future of mobile interaction,” he said. “And I say this as one of the very first people to explore the possibilities of sensors on mobile phones, including the now ubiquitous capability to sense and auto-rotate the screen orientation.”

As probabilistic programming gains popularity in data analytics, so does the need to make writing the programs more accessible to students and developers. Now there’s a tool that combines a conventional text editor with chart visualizations that, in initial testing, reduced the time, keystrokes and deletions required for the typical tasks novices do when learning to program.

In standard computer programs, variables have set values. But in probabilistic programming, a method of reasoning backwards that lends itself well to machine learning tasks, variables can have uncertain values. For example, a variable could have a value “some-number-between-1-and-100.” This lets you learn about the value of variables without having to write a machine learning algorithm.

The research, A Live, Multiple-Representation Probabilistic Programming Environment for Novices, was conducted in collaboration with the University of Cambridge.

Microsoft researchers and engineers received seven Best Paper awards at the CHI conference, including Finding Email in a Multi-Account, Multi-Device World.

The research, done in collaboration with University College London, found that while email remains an integral part of our everyday lives, the way we access it in the future may change drastically, evolving beyond the use of today’s email applications.

These days, we aren’t just accessing email across multiple devices. The researchers found that we approach our personal and professional email from different perspectives, which in turn affects how we interact with our email. While today’s email applications can be designed to better suit these differing habits, the future of email may be in how it is integrated into more flexible applications and services.

These are just a few samples of the variety of research Microsoft is presenting at CHI 2016. Microsoft is a sponsor of the annual conference in part because of its long history of work in human-computer interaction, notes Mary Czerwinski.

A research manager in Microsoft Research’s Visual and Interaction Research Group, Czerwinski said the conference “has been one of the premiere venues for disseminating research in the area of human-computer interaction, and has been one of the best vehicles for Microsoft’s mission: To empower every person and every organization to achieve more.”

By George Thomas, Jr., Writer, Microsoft

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