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EmTech 08: Mundie's bets are on 'first life'

Microsoft's Mundies: Multicore processors will spark new, dynamic applications for virtual representations of the real world.

The dramatic increase in compute power unleashed by multicore processors will enable applications that blend virtual representations of the real world with information that meets users' contextual needs, Microsoft's top researcher said at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Thursday.

But to realize this vision, the computer science community must master the transition to parallel programming environments, Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie told attendees at the Technology Review EmTech conference. This will also require modeling technology that masks complexity for programming tools, and work on sensing technologies, such as machine vision, which serve as the computer equivalent of human senses.

Mundie did not offer any new peeks behind the curtain of Microsoft's research operation, instead mostly presenting ideas and demos that he has previously shared. Most compelling were applications that build on a concept he has referred to as "first life" (as opposed to the virtual online playground Second Life).

It's not difficult to be engaged by a virtual representation of downtown Seattle compiled with Microsoft's Photosynth tool that might stop at a storefront, but could extend into a "walk-through" of a physical shop should the merchant wish to present that -- the online store coming full circle and meeting bricks-and-mortar again.

Mundie also played a video demo of a "robot receptionist," presumably an example of what Mundie said were more personalized, humanistic applications enabled by developments in computing architectures. Whether this will be the "killer app" that Mundie said each new era in computing needs to succeed in the marketplace may be debated by those whose idea of humanism is a moment of personal contact with a friendly person at the front desk.

Mundie was briefly joined on stage by Yujin's iRobi robot for one demo, and one of his first questions from the audience was an inquiry as to whether Microsoft would work with standards organizations that seek to promote interoperability in robotics. He responded that it's "way too early to standardize on interfaces" and noted that most standards in the computer industry have evolved from de facto standards.

Another audience member brought up comments from an earlier conference session on cloud computing and asked what Mundie thought of the contention that "the operating system will become irrelevant."

"Whether it's Windows or something else, something has to make all this iron work," Mundie responded, adding that today's computing environment demands a higher level of abstraction from the services offered by the OS, from a programming point of view.

However, from the user point of view, he said "most people don't choose Windows, they choose Office." The platform is important to users because it determines what applications are available, he added.