MS China lab comes of age with Tablet PC launch

The launch of the Tablet PC marks a second attempt by Microsoft Corp. to popularize pen computing, but to the 140 researchers and staff at Microsoft’s Research centre in Beijing, the event signifies something of a coming of age.

It was there that much of the research was done into the system that underlies the Tablet PC-a technology Microsoft calls digital ink-and its launch marks the commercialization of a product in which the centre was heavily involved.

“They are working on many projects but this is the biggest they have done so far,” said Alexandra Loeb, corporate vice president of the Tablet PC, who added that the Beijing centre handled most of the research that was not carried out at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Established in January 1999 with a commitment to invest US$80 million over five years, Microsoft Research Asia was the company’s only research centre in Asia-a position it still holds today. When it was formed, it was given the task of conducting basic research into human-computer interface technologies that will make PCs easier to use. More so than other markets, such technology is needed in Chinese-speaking nations where a variety of different input systems exist for typing Chinese into a PC.

It was this research focus that attracted Wang Jian, a researcher who had been working on such interface systems for more than six years before he joined MSR Asia three-and-a-half years ago.

“Before I joined Microsoft, I focused my work on interaction in 3D systems, like for virtual reality,” he said. “But after working on this for more than five years, I started thinking we should provide a more natural interface for the work people do everyday instead of developing an interface for a more specialized system, like virtual reality.”

But soon after the project began, Wang said he learned of the Tablet PC project and researchers got together to start collaborating.

Wang headed up work into ink parsing, the technological base of digital ink that seeks to make sense of what is being drawn on the tablet so users can benefit from the computing power in the device.

“Ink parsing technology tries to understand free form notes,” he said. “Basically, if we have notes we should know whether people are writing, drawing or sketching. If it is writing, we can throw the digital ink through a traditional recognition system to get it recognized. If it is drawing or sketching, we can do other smart things, so ink parsing is a foundation for the whole process.”

“That’s the mission of Tablet PC. When I have a pen, its easier to write on paper but if you have parsing technology, you can use and take advantage of the power of the PC,” he said.

With the first version of the software now hitting the market, Wang said he is already working on enhancements. At a recent “Ink Summit” held between members of his team and Microsoft’s Tablet PC group, Wang said he demonstrated some of the technological enhancements he is working on.

These include a system called ink synthesis which can be used to both turn typed text into notes in the user’s own handwriting or be used to clean up handwritten notes so they look neater but retain the basic handwriting style of the user.

Digital ink is not the only area in which MSR Asia is working. Researchers are studying subjects including media management, wireless technologies, speech and natural language processing. The company says it has significantly exceeded the $80 million investment commitment made in 1998 and has seen expansion of 30 per cent in the last 12 months alone.