All posts in “Microsoft”

Teacher in Ghana who used blackboard to explain computers gets some Microsoft love

Teaching kids how to use a computer is hard enough already, since they’re kids, but just try doing it without any computers. That was the task undertaken by Richard Appiah Akoto in Ghana, and his innovative (and labor-intensive) solution was to draw the computer or application on the blackboard in great detail. His hard work went viral and now Microsoft has stepped in to help out.

Akoto teaches at Betenase Municipal Assembly Junior High in the small town of Sekyedomase. He had posted pictures of his magnum opus, a stunning rendition of a complete Microsoft Word window, to Facebook. “I love ma students so have to do what will make them understand wat am teaching,” he wrote. He looks harried in the last image of the sequence.

The post blew up (9.3K reactions at this point), and Microsoft, which has for years been rather quietly promoting early access to computing and engineering education, took notice. It happened to be just before the company’s Education Exchange in Singapore, and they flew him out.

Akoto in Singapore.

It was Akoto’s first time outside of Ghana, and at the conference, a gathering of education leaders from around the world, he described his all-too-common dilemma: The only computers available — one belonging to the school and Akoto’s personal laptop — were broken.

“I wanted to teach them how to launch Microsoft Word. But I had no computer to show them,” he said in an interview with Microsoft at the event. “I had to do my best. So, I decided to draw what the screen looks like on the blackboard with chalk.”

“I have been doing this every time the lesson I’m teaching demands it,” he continued. “I’ve drawn monitors, system units, keyboards, a mouse, a formatting toolbar, a drawing toolbar, and so on. The students were okay with that. They are used to me doing everything on the board for them.”

Pursuing such a difficult method instead of giving up under such circumstances is more than a little admirable, and the kids are certainly better off for having a teacher dedicated to his class and subject. A little computer literacy can make a big difference.

“They have some knowledge about computers, but they don’t know how to actually operate one,” Akoto said. So Microsoft has offered to provide “device and software support” for the school (I’ve asked for specifics, though they may depend on the school’s needs), and Akoto will get a chance to go through Microsoft’s educator certification program (which has other benefits).

Obviously if this school is having this issue, countless more are as well, and could use similar support. And as Akoto himself eloquently pointed out to NPR when his post first went viral, “They are lacking more than just equipment.”

But at least in this case there are a couple hundred students who will be getting an opportunity they didn’t have before. That’s a start.

SwiftKey gets stickers

Back in 2016, Microsoft bought the popular SwiftKey keyboard for Android and iOS for $250 million. It’s still one of the most popular third-party keyboard on both platforms and today, the company is launching one of its biggest updates since the acquisition. With SwiftKey 7.0,  which is out now, the company is adding stickers — because who doesn’t like stickers?

Going forward, the service will offer a number of sticker packs, including some that can be edited and some that are exclusive to Microsoft, too.

That by itself wouldn’t be all that interesting, of course (and I can already see you rolling your eyes) but the real change here is under the hood and sets SwiftKey up for adding more interesting features soon. That’s because the stickers will live in the new SwiftKey toolbar, which will replace the current ‘hub,’ the menu where you can change your keyboard’s layout, size, etc. Right now, what you can find there are stickers and collections, that is, a library of stickers, images and other media you like to torture your friends with.

In the near future, SwiftKey will use this toolbar to enable a number of other new features like location sharing (though only in the U.S. and India for now) and calendar sharing.

“We remain committed to making regular typing as fast and easy as possible,” writes Chris Wolfe, Principal Product Manager at SwiftKey in today’s announcement. “Today’s release of Toolbar, Stickers and Collections, as well as the announcement of Location and Calendar, also shows our ambition to improve users’ experience of rich media. With the support of Microsoft, you can expect to see more innovations in both regular and rich media typing coming soon”

Microsoft Pix can scan business cards to your contacts, find people on LinkedIn

LinkedIn used to have its own business card scanning app, CardMunch, which served a useful purpose in a world where paper cards simply refuse to die. But that app was shut down back in 2014, with LinkedIn suggesting users move to Evernote instead. Today, Microsoft is bringing back business card scanning – but this time, not with a dedicated card scanner app, but with its multipurpose, A.I.-powered camera app, Microsoft Pix.

Since its launch in 2016 as an iOS app that helps you take better pictures, Microsoft has increasingly found more productivity-related uses for Pix. In September, for example, the app was updated to include a way to snap better photos of documents, post-its, whiteboards, and yes, business cards.

But with today’s update, Pix’s business cards smarts are being upgraded – this time with a LinkedIn integration. In the latest version of the iOS app, Pix includes a new business card feature that will add new contacts both to your iPhone’s address book, as well as to your LinkedIn account.

To take advantage of this option, you just launch the app and point it at the business card. Pix then automatically detects what it’s seeing, and asks you if you want to “Add Contact” or “Find on LinkedIn.”

When you tap to add the contact, Pix captures and organizes the contact information – like name, phone, address, and URL – into the correct fields, and adds the newly created contact to your iPhone’s Contacts app. If you opt for LinkedIn, you’re able to view the person’s profile in the LinkedIn app on your iPhone, and optionally add them to your list of connections.

The business card scanning feature, like others in Pix, leverages A.I. technology under the hood to enhance and improve the image. In the case of business cards, Pix is able to detect the edges of the cards, sharpen focus, and tweak the angle of the photo to render the image in a straight-on perspective so it can extract the information from the card.

The Pix update is just one of several ways Microsoft has integrated with LinkedIn since acquiring the company for $26.2 billion in 2016. It has also tied LinkedIn into its other products, including Office 365,, Dynamics 365, Word, and Windows 10.

The updated version of Microsoft Pix is rolling out today. You may not have it yet, as it has to propagate across the App Store, so keep your eyes peeled.

Microsoft Soundscape helps the visually impaired navigate cities

Microsoft today launched Soundscape, a new iOS app that aims to give people who are blind or visually impaired a greater awareness of their surrounding by using 3D cues.

It’s worth stressing that the app isn’t about replacing guide dogs or canes. Instead, it’s all about enriching people’s perception of their surroundings. A guide dog can’t tell you that your favorite store is right around the corner if you’re in an unfamiliar city or what street you are on, after all. With the app, users can set audio beacons for destinations and landmarks. Using GPS and the built-in compass in the phone, the app then generates its spatial audio cues. The mapping data is provided by OpenStreetMap.

“Obstacle avoidance is not the problem, we have a dog, a cane and our blindness skills for that,” said Erin Lauridsen, Access Technology Director, LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco in a blog post today. “The gap is knowing where things are and being able to decide what’s of interest.”

The app offers three modes: ‘locate’ tells you where you are, ‘around me’ calls out four points of interest around you and ‘ahead of me’ provides the names of five landmarks in front of you.

If some of this sounds familiar, that’s probably because Microsoft has been working on this project for quite a while now. Back in 2014, the team was working with Windows Phone handsets and was experimenting with bone-conduction headsets. At the time, Microsoft was also hoping to use sensors and beacons in cities to provide additional information like bus arrival times. Today, Windows Phone is no more and the requirement of using a bone-conduction headset has been removed, but the general idea behind Soundscape has always remained the same.

If you want to see the app in action, take a look at this video (and put on headphones to get the spatial audio effects).

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Microsoft and Xiaomi to collaborate on AI, cloud computing and hardware

After Microsoft signed a deal to test Windows 10 on Xiaomi devices in 2015 and then Xiaomi bought a trove of patents to help run other Microsoft services on its devices in 2016, today the two companies announced another chapter in its collaboration. Xiaomi and Microsoft have signed a Strategic Framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work more closely in the areas of cloud computing, AI (including Microsoft’s Cortana business) and hardware.

To date, Xiaomi has largely focused its mobile phone strategy in Asia Pacific, where Gartner revealed yesterday that it (and Huawei) were the only two vendors to increase their market shares at a time of general decline. This deal could point to how Xiaomi is looking to raise its game in the West, specifically in the US.

On the side of Microsoft, it’s particularly interesting given that the company has largely pulled back on a lot of its hardware efforts, and has visibly had some major stumbles in this area especially in mobile — most recently with its failure to take on and grow the Nokia mobile business and Windows Mobile.

Understanding that this isn’t an area that Microsoft can quite quit altogether, it seems that the company is going to have one more go now on a slightly different framework.

“Xiaomi is one of the most innovative companies in China, and it is becoming increasingly popular in various markets around the world,” said Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, in a statement. “Microsoft’s unique strengths and experience in AI, as well as our products like Azure, will enable Xiaomi to develop more cutting-edge technology for everyone around the world.”

“Microsoft has been a great partner and we are delighted to see both companies deepening this relationship with this strategic MoU,” Wang Xiang, Global Senior Vice President and Head of International Business, Xiaomi, added in his statement. “Xiaomi’s mission is to deliver innovation to everyone around the world. By collaborating with Microsoft on multiple technology areas, Xiaomi will accelerate our pace to bring more exciting products and services to our users. At the same time, this partnership would allow Microsoft to reach more users around the world who are using Xiaomi products.”

The deal covers four major areas of services for the two companies.

Cloud support will include Xiaomi using Microsoft Azure for data storage, bandwidth and computing and other cloud services. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s efforts in laptops and “laptop-style devices” that run Windows will be co-marketed by Microsoft. Then Microsoft is also going to be talking with Xiaomi on how to improve collaboration on AI-powered speakers using Cortana.

That appears to be just the start for the company’s AI collaborations. They also “intend to explore multiple cooperative projects based on a broad range of Microsoft AI technologies, such as Computer Vision, Speech, Natural Language Processing, Text Input, Conversational AI, Knowledge Graph and Search, as well as related Microsoft AI products and services, such as Bing, Edge, Cortana, XiaoIce, SwiftKey, Translator, Pix, Cognitive Services and Skype,” Microsoft said in a statement.

No financial terms to the arrangement are being given but we are asking.