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Microsoft Research Showcases Future Technology

Thanks to sensor-based systems, users may soon be able to find nearby restaurants and then pinpoint those with the shortest waiting list.

Those who hate long waits for a table at popular dinner spots may soon get some help from Microsoft.

Thanks to Sense Web, a new Web technology from Microsoft's research group, users may soon be able to find nearby restaurants and then pinpoint those with a shortest waiting list. The technology was one of several innovations Microsoft showcased in an open house at its Silicon Valley research campus in Mountain View, Calif.

Sense Web is designed to integrate realtime information into beta mapping software dubbed Virtual Earth. Sense Web works via "sensors" placed at various remote sites that broadcast information relevant to the location. The wireless transmitters send local information--such as a restaurant’s table availability or the temperature at a national forest during fire season--to a Web server. Microsoft is also offering a tool to help users link their sensors to a Virtual Earth site.

Microsoft demonstrated several sensors at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, and in the neighboring community. The research group's proposal would hinge on large-scale participation among government agencies and businesses. Sense Web is expected to go live on Virtual Earth in the next few months, according to Microsoft.

The software maker clearly has big plans for such technology. Rico Malvar, a director at the Microsoft Research Redmond campus, said similar sensors placed on cars could help ease traffic congestion.

"Imagine if every car transmits a little bit of information about where it is," Malvar said at the open-house event. That would help people find the clearest routes in real time and allow roadways to be configured on the fly based on the traffic load. "These kinds of things are not too far away," he said.

Microsoft also showcased other technologies that harness the power of the Internet. A project called “Wild Thing Goes Mobile” aims to simplify Web searches on mobile phones and wireless handhelds. The technology, for example, can perform complex queries when users enter the first few letters of a word on their devices. An engineer located Web sites about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies by typing in "ar s*w m." He also demonstrated a search for Thai food restaurants in San Francisco by typing "t r" in the search box and "s f" in the city box. The technology is especially useful for cell phones with cumbersome letter keys, he said.

Also featured was Pin Point, a service that uses GPS data from cell phones to track the location of users on the network. The service would enable users to set up a network of friends and family that could be tracked through a Web interface or cell phone alerts. Microsoft demonstrated alerts that notified a user when friends were close by and showed a child's location every few hours.

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