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Computing with a wink of the eye! Microsoft, University of Melbourne to collaborate on humanising technologies

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For years, Microsoft conducted all its research in its walled garden in Redmond. Only in the 1990s, it ventured to Cambridge, U.K., to open its first centre outside the U.S. Since then, as globalisation has gained momentum, it has tapped research potential in many corners of the globe, each time making its choice with care and keeping in mind the specialised talent.

Now the software mogul is making its foray into Australia. In a partnership with the University of Melbourne and the state government of Victoria, Microsoft is setting up a specialised center to research and develop ways to help humans use computers in natural ways – with a glance of the eye, or perhaps, even with a twitch of the eyebrows.

The Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interface Research at the University of Melbourne – called the first of its kind anywhere in the world – will be an $8 million collaboration over three years.

Making technology work for people

“This is a world-class research centre, located at a world-class university in a forward-thinking state,” said Tony Hey, Vice President of Microsoft Research.

Professor James McCluskey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, said the centre was an opportunity for Australian researchers to “collaborate on new and exciting technologies that will ultimately change our lives.”

Natural user interface – as opposed to the older keyboard and mice – has been the obvious way to go. But it has taken long to create what was first envisioned in science fiction. Still, in recent years it has attained a welcome momentum. It was first seen in gaming devices such as Nintendo Wii. With touchscreens, tablet computers and GPS devices, it’s mainstream but, obviously, natural use interfaces are in a nascent stage of development.

Microsoft’s initiative is a recognition of this fact, and a reflection of the future opportunities. The joint centre will be a focal point for researchers to undertake groundbreaking research on the social uses and applications of new NUI technologies incorporating – and integrating – voice, gestures, eye gaze, body movements and touch.

“Social NUIs, in particular, humanise technology, they are about making technology work for people rather than people working for technology,” said Professor Frank Vetere, Director of the centre.

“This new centre will undertake important work in terms of creating the next generation of computing experiences,” added Vetere, who leads the Interaction Design Lab in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Computing and Information Systems.

The centre will offer 28 dedicated research positions, besides welcoming others with an interest in social NUI from across the Asia Pacific and around the world. Academics and PhD students in the centre will collaborate with each other and will have the additional opportunity to spend time at Microsoft’s research centres in Cambridge (UK), Beijing, and Redmond (US).

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