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Brown, Microsoft Research present pen-based computing initiative

Top administrators from Brown and Microsoft Research unveiled plans yesterday for the creation of the Microsoft Center for Research on Pen-Centric Computing, a multifaceted initiative of pen-based computing at Brown in which Microsoft will invest $1.2 million over the next three years. The announcement came at a joint press conference held at the Center for Information Technology.

Pen-based computing digitalizes the writing process; an inkless stylus replaces the pen, and the technology employs a digital monitor instead of a sheet of paper. It combines "the convenience of the pen and the power of computing," said Vice President for Research Andries van Dam.

In introducing Richard Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, President Ruth Simmons cited Microsoft's worldwide and inescapable influence, noting that "Microsoft has changed how we think."

Throughout the conference, Rashid cited many reasons why Microsoft chose Brown over other schools, emphasizing "Brown's leadership role" in computer and science research.

Microsoft likes to support excitement and innovation at universities, he said. "We devote 15 percent of our money for basic research to universities," he added.

Simmons said the University traditionally excels in scientific research and study and added the new relationship between Microsoft and Brown is part of the growing "partnership between industry and academy." As an aside, she cited this partnership's role in "enhancing national security."

As of now, 16 pen-based digital devices are used on campus, and this number will grow over the next three years. These interfaces will be open only to students in select classes participating in the study. Professor of Chemistry Matthew Zimmt, who was also at yesterday's conference, said he currently uses the technology in his class.

At one point, Simmons cited Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" to emphasize the importance of "investing in science and technology." This investment produces "better tools" for the "academy, industry and government," she said.

During the conference, van Dam presented an initial demonstration of the pen-based computing technology. Touching an electronic stylus to the surface of the digital tablet, he scrolled through various programs to be used in different areas of study, which included music, chemistry and mathematics.

The pen-based research will examine "how we use (computers)" and "how we interact with them," van Dam said during the presentation. The research will be multi-disciplinary and will add to the study of "gesture recognition" and "machine learning," two technologies that contribute to pen-based computing, van Dam said.

Pen-based computing is at the forefront of a technological advance that changes the way people interact with electronic interfaces, Rashid said. "We are reaching a point in the future where any surface can be an interactive surface," he said. "Input and output will soon be equal."

Chris Maloney '06 demonstrated a program designed for an organic chemistry class titled Chem Pad. On the tablet PC's screen, Maloney drew an alcohol molecule. Immediately, the program converted his drawing into a three-dimensional ball-and-stick representation of the molecule.

"2-D doesn't convey all the information about the molecule," he said, adding that Chem Pad enables a student to immediately visualize the three-dimensional representation.

Van Dam compared the pen's note-taking value to the keyboard's. Typing is an "unnatural fit" for certain subjects, such as chemistry, he said. "The pen is mightier than the keyboard," he added.

Rashid emphasized that students outside of the sciences will profit from pen-based computing as well, citing the music program that was presented earlier.

Malloney has used a prototype of the tablet PC during the past four years. He told The Herald he would "have to think about" why a humanities student should get excited about pen-based computing.

In a demonstration at the conference, a member of van Dam's research team told The Herald, "There are a lot of programs that can be used in the humanities, but most are pretty boring right now."

But Rashid maintained that the technology will benefit students studying a variety of fields. "These devices will eventually replace paper print media," he said, as he scrolled through a novel he was reading on his pocket PC.

During the conference, Simmons lauded Rashid for his contributions to science, but noted that "he did major in comparative literature" as an undergraduate.


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