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Microsoft unveils hands-on vision of the future

  • Story Highlights
  • Software giant Microsoft unveils "technology of the future"
  • Microsoft International President hails health, user interface as key areas
  • LCD fridge panel helps organize the family, generates shopping lists
  • Xbox's "Family Timer" lets parents limit kids' gaming sessions
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By CNN's Linnie Rawlinson
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Software giant Microsoft unveiled some of its future technology at its fourth annual Innovation Day in Brussels on December 4.

Living Tomorrow's Barbara Vanheule demonstrates their fridge-mounted touch-screen family organizer

And from virtual family organizers to tabletop touch-screens, their vision of the future sees technology move from the traditional desktop computer to become seamlessly integrated in all aspects of our lives.

One key area that's set to change, says Microsoft, is user interface. MD of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, Andrew Herbert told CNN, "Sitting at a keyboard with a screen in front of us is an old-fashioned view of computing. Technology is going to be around us, it's going to be much easier to use."

Developments in touch-screen technology have resulted in large screens that can be used by multiple people, creating table-top tools for collaboration at work. And along with touch-screens, voice recognition will make our interaction with computers much more natural.

Herbert told CNN, "Interactive surfaces are making it easier for people to use computers with gesture and touch. It will make it easy for people to collaborate together. Speech will be an important part of that, too."

"We'll think less of one person, one computer," he continued. "It'll be people working together in an environment with lots of computers that you can interact with."

Touch-screens will also play a role in the home, according to the Microsoft-funded "Living Tomorrow" project. They showed off a large electronic touch-screen family organizer integrated into the wall of a fridge, which included shopping lists and menus compiled from product bar codes, a family calendar and virtual sticky notes.

"It's a way for a family to stay in touch, even though Mum's away on a business trip, Dad's at the office and the kids are doing different things," said Herbert. "It's the idea of social computing holding families together."

That technology is in development and still prohibitively expensive for widespread use, but Microsoft expects the cost of the component parts -- LCDs, cameras and sensors -- to fall significantly in the coming years.

Health is another area for technological advancement. For the consumer, that means wireless devices that monitor key body functions, such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. The Living Well project showcased an electric toothbrush that could take these measurements and then display them on an LCD bathroom mirror, all while a person was brushing their teeth.

President of Microsoft International, Jean-Philippe Courtois told CNN, "Technology is going to play a crucial role for health in terms of sensing some of the key health parameters of the human body."

These devices can send data to doctors so they can monitor their elderly patients remotely, alert them to potential health issues early and step in if medical attention is needed. "They can take proactive action," Courtois continued, "and call those older people saying, 'Please take this medicine,' or even send someone on site."

This could prove a timely panacea for countries facing the fiscal challenge of caring for an ageing population. "It will save a lot of money for the social security system and the health system in many countries," Courtois said.

We've all heard that the future of computing is mobile, and Andrew Herbert reiterated that, telling CNN, "I see the mobile phone becoming more important than the personal computer in the future." Now, television is becoming portable too. That's according to Slingmedia's Slingbox, an on-market streaming device that liberates TV shows from our living rooms. Slingbox, already popular in the U.S., lets people watch any program they receive on their home TV remotely, on their mobile phone or laptop computer -- an activity known as "placeshifting."

In the realm of law enforcement, Imasoft's CrimeSceneNet lets police recreate three-dimensional models of real crime scenes from maps and photographs and annotate them with forensic findings and other evidence, helping law enforcement agencies collaborate with each other as a crime investigation progresses.

And as more children connect with each other via the Internet, monitoring their online activities becomes increasingly important to their parents. Microsoft-sponsored research revealed that, while 71 percent of parents are concerned about the content of video games, 60 percent say they are sufficiently informed to control their child's access to video games.

However, only half of parents surveyed said they felt in control of the amount of time their kids spent playing computer games. With that in mind, and hoping to set themselves apart as the family-friendly option in an increasingly competitive console market, Microsoft announced the launch of the Family Timer for the Xbox, so parents can control just how much time their offspring spend gaming.

Family Timer "will enable parents for the first time to set the appropriate amount of gaming and entertainment time on the Xbox 360 -- on a daily or weekly basis," said Chris Lewis, Vice President, Microsoft EMEA.

"It's a fantastic time to be a kid in the digital age, but it's also time for all of us to come together as responsible parents and business leaders to ensure our children are safe as well as challenged and entertained," he continued.

So welcome to Microsoft's future, where Mom stays in touch with the family via electronic notes on the fridge, Dad placeshifts so he never misses his favorite TV show and Grandpa keeps an eye on his health via his toothbrush.

But you'll still have to deal with the kids' tantrums when Family Timer switches off their Xbox... E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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