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IDC Students Show Microsoft How to Do It Right

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The setting was the annual student Design Expo at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, which is one reason the project called “Clashers” stood out: It’s an Android app, developed by students from Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, that leverages YouTube to let people eavesdrop on songs being played by other Clashers users they spot on the street, the bus or anywhere else.

After their presentation yesterday at the Redmond event, a member of the panel pointed out that Microsoft itself had tried this type of thing — with proximity-based song sharing on its ill-fated Zune music player —with decidedly underwhelming results.

But the IDC students believe they have come up with a better approach. When a user clicks on the picture and name of the other Clashers user, the app pulls up a YouTube music video and starts playing at the same point in the song, for a shared music experience. The person who has been “Clashed” gets a notification that someone else is listening in.

Apart from its use of non-Microsoft technologies in a Microsoft design showcase, the app stands out because it’s actually available now in the Google Play Store. As the video above shows, it’s a potential nirvana for teens and twenty-something singles.

The students say the project was inspired not by Zune but by the popular “What Song Are You Listening To?” videos on YouTube.

What about privacy? Clashers only works if the other person is willingly using the app, and only shows the user’s name and picture, but the app highlights what can be a relatively relaxed attitude toward privacy among younger generations.

The Microsoft Research Design Expo, now in its 10th year, was started by Microsoft researcher Lili Cheng. It’s part of Microsoft’s broader attempt to include student design teams from around the world — not just computer science students — in the process of developing and imagining technology. The overall theme this year was “making data useful.”

Every school involved in the Design Expo runs a semester-long class each year, with help from Microsoft. Student projects compete at each school to present their work at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, although the expo itself isn’t a contest. Past participants have included Dennis Crowley, the Foursquare founder, who was a graduate student at NYU.

On the other end of the privacy spectrum from Clashers, a Design Expo project called “Mine,” from students at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, gives people a glimpse of what data miners know about them from their public feeds, allowing them to make adjustments as necessary to shape the way they’re viewed by potential employers and others.

The involvement of international schools can often lead to new insights for U.S.-based researchers. As an example, Cheng pointed to this year’s PoliCiti project by students from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, which gives citizens new ways to report crime, track police progress and even see geographic clusters of bribery and police corruption through a mobile app. Another project, from UCLA grad student Refik Anadol, will project a real-time light show onto the interior and exterior of L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall next year — using real-time data from the live music and tracking the motion of L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Anadol gave a brief demo of the technology in a Microsoft conference hall yesterday, and it was impressive even at a smaller scale.

And a project called Greenery, from students at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Design Department, creates a virtual laboratory to help urban dwellers grow their own food in real time.

Check out Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.

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