Microsoft app helps blind people ‘see’ the world with AI

Microsoft has launched an iPhone app designed to help blind and partially-sighted people better navigate the world. The app, Seeing AI, uses ‘computer vision’ to narrate the user’s surroundings, read text, describe scenes and even identify friends’ facial cues.

The project has been in the works since September 2016; in March this year, Microsoft demonstrated a prototype of the app for the first time. It uses neural networks, similar to the technology found in self-driving cars, to identify its environment and speak its observations out loud.

Point your phone camera at a friend and it’ll tell you who they are. Aim it toward a short piece of text such as a name badge or room number and it’ll speak it instantly — a marked step up from the optical character recognition (OCR) technology of yore. Plus, it guides the user into capturing the object in question correctly, telling them to move the camera left or right to get the target in shot.

The app also recognizes currency, identifies products via their barcodes and, through an experimental feature, can describe entire scenes, such as a man walking a dog or food cooking on a stove. Basic tasks can be carried out directly within the app, without the need for an internet connection. It’s currently available to download for free in the US on iOS, but there’s no indication when it’ll come to other platforms or countries.

In a blog post by Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and research group, the company explains that Seeing AI is “just the beginning” for this kind of AI application. Machine learning, perception and natural language processing have evolved over time into separate fields of research, it says, but “we believe AI will be even more helpful when we can create tools that combine those functions.”

Source: Microsoft

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Microsoft officially ends support for Windows Phone

It’s official: for all intents and purposes, the Windows Phone era is over. Microsoft has ended support for Windows Phone 8.1 just over 3 years after its April 2014 debut. From now on, your WP8.1-toting device won’t get software updates or technical help. This doesn’t mark the end of Microsoft’s mobile ambitions (Windows 10 Mobile is still hanging around), but it does finish a long, sad story in the company’s history that reflects the tech giant’s shifting priorities.

Windows Phone 7 was launched in 2010 as Microsoft’s formal response to the iPhone and Android. This was the release that was going to prove Microsoft could make a truly consumer-focused mobile platform instead of catering primarily to the business crowd. The tile-based home screen and other interface elements were breaths of fresh air, but the so-so device lineup (HTC Surround anyone?) and lack of feature parity (it launched without copy-and-paste text) set the tone. It was always a bit lackluster compared to what Apple and Google were doing, even if there were occasional bright spots.

Case in point: Windows Phone 8. It was a huge upgrade, but no Windows Phone 7 device could run it. Millions of users were faced with the prospect of having to upgrade their handset early to stay current, erasing a lot of Microsoft’s hard-earned good will. Windows Phone 8.1 finally provided a truly complete answer to Android and iOS, but it was still a little bit behind and never got the sustained big-name app support that Microsoft had tried so hard to cultivate. And we can’t forget the ill-fated partnership between Microsoft and Nokia, including the eventual purchase of Nokia’s hardware business. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven (Microsoft got a huge, reliable partner while Nokia got a modern OS), but it mostly led to a lopsided Windows Phone market where third parties always played second fiddle to the latest Lumia.

That Microsoft ditched Windows Phone entirely in favor of Windows 10 Mobile says a lot. Just as Microsoft shifted from a dependence on Windows sales to a focus on apps and services, the pocket-sized Windows is no longer intended as an iPhone-beater — it’s more an extension of the desktop PC experience. Even then, it’s fading away as Microsoft cuts its former Nokia staff and has been winding down its mobile plans. Windows Phone produced many fond memories, particularly stand-out devices like the Lumia 1020, but it largely represents a missed opportunity to adapt to an industry where phones, not PCs, are the center of the computing universe.

Via: The Verge

Source: Microsoft

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Microsoft Pix Camera imitates Prisma with its AI-powered filters

Microsoft Pix Camera uses artificial intelligence to make your pictures of people better. It uses algorithms behind the scenes to analyze the 10 frames it snaps for every picture you take, looking for sharpness, exposure and even facial expressions to make sure you get the very best shot. It even takes good data from the pictures it doesn’t use to enhance the photos it chooses. The app, launched last summer and just updated, now offers new filters that can help you make your photos look like real works of art.

These artsy filters may sound a lot like what standalone app, Prisma, does, but Microsoft’s implementation was developed by Microsoft’s Asia research lab in collaboration with Skype. According to a company blog post, Pix Styles use texture, pattern, and tones learned by deep neural networks from famous works of art instead of altering the photo uniformly like other similar apps. Microsoft researcher Josh Weisberg told Engadget that the app uses two different techniques, run in tandem to save time, to produce these effects. “Our approach lends itself to styles based on source images (that are used to train the network) that are not paintings, such as the fire effect,” he said in an email.

The initial 11 Styles filters are named Glass, Petals, Bacau, Charcoal, Heart, Fire, Honolulu, Zing, Pop, Glitter and Ripples — more will be added in the coming weeks. Pix Paintings creates a timeline of your picture as if it were being painted in real time, giving you a short video of its creation. The Paintings feature is accessed with a button that shows up when you apply a new Style, and you can share or save the resulting short video (or GIF) it makes, too.

“These are meant to be fun features,” said Microsoft’s Josh Weisberg in a blog post. “In the past, a lot of our efforts were focused on using AI and deep learning to capture better moments and better image quality. This is more about fun. I want to do something cool and artistic with my photos.”

All this AI magic works right on your iPhone or iPad and won’t access the cloud, saving your data plan and decreasing your wait time. You can still use Pix’s other features with the new styles, adding frames and cropping your still photos. Microsoft Pix Camera is available now in the App Store and as a free update to existing owners, as well.

Source: Microsoft Blog, Microsoft/Twitter

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Microsoft Office iPhone users can doodle with their fingers

If you want to sketch or perhaps add your signature to a Word, Excel or PowerPoint document on iOS, the only option has been to use the iPad Pro’s Pencil. Now, with the latest version of Office for the iPhone, you can draw directly on a document with no need for the stylus. Once you launch the app, you can “use your finger to write, draw and highlight with the tools in the new Draw tab,” Microsoft says.

Tools include a pen with adjustable line thicknesses and color, a highlighter and an eraser, and you can draw directly on cells, documents or slides. The new tools should come in particularly handy in conjunction with Office’s new collaboration tools, letting users easily mark up and share changes. The updated apps are now available on the App Store.

Via: The Verge

Source: Microsoft (iTunes)

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