Posted by Rob Knies

 TechFest 2012

With March 2012 upon us, you could say that, from a calendar perspective, the drama of this leap year already has passed. February has enjoyed its quadrennial enhancement. The ides of March are nearly upon us. A change of season is a couple of weeks away.

But those are simply timekeeping trivia. If you’re looking for real, substantive advancements, consider Microsoft Research’s TechFest 2012, the annual celebration of computer-science technology.

At Microsoft Research, with its proud tradition of groundbreaking technological explorations extending over 20 years, every year is leap year.

That’s “leap,” as in leap forward, and that’s what TechFest always represents. In early March each year—we held one in late February a few years back, and it seemed to take everybody a step off stride—personnel  from Microsoft Research’s nine locations worldwide submit their best, brightest work for TechFest consideration.

It’s a hectic affair. Researchers scramble to refine their projects in time. They’re entering a competition, you see. Each of Microsoft Research’s labs nominates its top candidates for inclusion, and a rigorous, two-month process of reviews, discussion, and difficult decision-making presages the actual show itself.

This year’s TechFest is being held in Redmond, Wash., from March 6 to 8, at the Microsoft Conference Center. The first day is open to academics, partners, customers, and select members of the media. They get to see a subset of the entire show, a collection of demonstrations that offer a tantalizing peek at some of the exciting directions in which technology is headed.

Then, on March 7 and 8, comes the full show, open to Microsoft employees. Thousands await eagerly for their entrance into a rare wonderland in which the shape of tomorrow comes into focus. Microsoft executives get a glimpse of potentially game-changing projects. Members of product groups queue to learn how they can get their hands on cutting-edge technologies. Others visit just to be dazzled by so much new stuff.

So what constitutes the “leap” in this leap year? A couple of themes have emerged:

The power of blending virtual and physical worlds: The ever-increasing focus on natural user interfaces is blurring the lines between the real world around us and the augmentations enabled by our corresponding digital existence.
The insights we can derive from big data: Scientists are, more than ever, awash in enormous amounts of data, and those, along with cloud-computing services, are unleashing new possibilities for transforming education, the environment, a broad swath of scientific endeavors, and the search for data and information.

These are areas of exploration with profound consequences, and where better than Microsoft Research to pursue them? With its 850 researchers across the globe focusing on more than 60 areas of computing-related research, this is what Rick Rashid, Microsoft chief research officer, has been constructing over the past two decades.

Over the next few days, in this space and elsewhere, we’ll be trying to fill in some details, provide a bit of color, and, just maybe, a laugh or two along the way. Stay tuned—now on the Techfest home page, and next year, too. Remember: When it comes to advancing the state of the art, at Microsoft Research, every year represents a leap forward.