March 6, 2007 10:54 AM PST

Outsiders get first peek at Microsoft's TechFest

REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft's internal science fair kicked off on Tuesday, but those inside the company will have to wait another day to view it.

Departing from tradition, Microsoft this year opened up the first day of TechFest to about 300 outsiders, allowing customers, partners, government officials and reporters to get the first look at dozens of projects cooked up by the company's 800-person research unit. On Wednesday and Thursday, the event will be opened up to Microsoft employees, who will get to see the projects shown publicly as well as others that are not being displayed Tuesday.

Microsoft uses the TechFest to allow workers across Microsoft's product groups to get a sense of what Microsoft's research arm is up to and how its efforts might fit into future products.

Among the projects on display this year is one called "World-wide Telescope," which aims to allow a PC to impersonate a powerful, ground-based telescope. The software draws on tens of millions of digital images that are part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and other sources, such as NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Researcher Curtis Wong demonstrated the technology for attendees, zooming out from Microsoft's Redmond campus to view Earth and then zooming farther out, beyond our galaxy, to show the Big Dipper and several other galaxies from the same vantage point.

Microsoft research head Rick Rashid said the project does for space what MSN's Virtual Earth does for our planet.

"I love the idea of being able to just sit at my home and explore space, since I am unlikely to get there any other way," said Rashid, a self-described huge Star Trek fan.

Microsoft also announced Tuesday that the head of its Redmond, Wash., research lab, Dan Ling, is retiring after 15 years at the company. He will be succeeded by Henrique Malvar, a 10-year company veteran who will serve as managing director for the lab, the company's largest.

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