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Meet Microsoft, the world's best kept R&D secret

Matt Smith | Jan. 3, 2013
As far as 99.9 per cent of the world population is concerned, Microsoft is a stodgy, old-guard technology company. Its bottom line is fully leveraged against PC operating systems and business software--hardly the building blocks of a future-thinking portfolio, right?

Neither path is likely to become a consumer product soon--Stevie Bathiche, Microsoft's Director of Research in the Applied Sciences Group, wouldn't even hazard a guess about the consumer availability of the first example of holodeck technology--but both are promising ideas. Microsoft's combination of hardware and software expertise gives it a unique combination of knowledge that will be needed if virtual reality is to ever be practical and affordable for the average consumer.

Foveated Rendering

Computers will need a tremendous increase in capability to render graphics on the scale envisioned by Microsoft's virtual reality research. The increase in resolution alone would increase the graphics power required by an order of magnitude. In other words, even if the other technologies required to create the company's holodeck were perfected tomorrow, it would still be a dream. Modern home computers simply couldn't handle it.

Microsoft's working on a solution, and it's based on the infirmities of the flesh. The human eye can only view a limited area in full detail. Our peripheral vision is much less sensitive. A computer with eye-tracking hardware--like, say, the holodeck mentioned above--can take advantage of this by determining where we're focused and rendering objects in the periphery with less detail, using an antialiasing algorithm to smooth out the lower resolutions found off-center.

Microsoft calls this technique Foveated Rendering and has already conducted successful trials. Users couldn't tell the difference between the normal image and the one with reduced detail. Yet the less detailed image required up to six times less power to render! "The result looks like a full-resolution image but reduces the number of pixels shaded by a factor of 10-15," the research team notes.

This technology, if it came to consumers, would have broad implications. Game consoles would appear more realistic without quicker hardware. High-resolution displays would become more practical. And virtual reality would be much, much easier for a PC to handle.

Kinect Glasses and augmented reality

All of this technology may sound fantastical, but Microsoft-driven augmented reality may pop up sooner than you think. Earlier this year, a document containing information about the next Xbox leaked to the press. It was quickly mopped up by Redmond's legal teams, but the document was available long enough to leak numerous details. Most of it was expected: The next Xbox will be more powerful, will offer a better version of Kinect, and will have even greater focus on digital distribution.

On tidbit came out of nowhere, however--Fortaleza, also referred to as Kinect Glasses. The leak showed artist renderings of people using augmented reality glasses in conjunction with the next Xbox to play games and navigate its operating system. The glasses would even be Wi-Fi and 4G capable, which suggests they might be usable without the game console.


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