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January 17, 2007

Microsoft's advertising arsenal

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano at 6:00 PM

Microsoft has about 80 researchers in Beijing and 40 more in Redmond working to beat Google at the game it invented: selling online advertising. The adLabs researchers put some of their projects on display Wednesday at Microsoft's third adCenter Demofest.

The room at Microsoft's RedWest campus, just across 520 from the main campus, was divided in half. On one side were projects that are still too deep in the development cycle to be shown to reporters. A handful of Microsoft partners were on hand to take a look at those, which had names like "Keyword Genie," "Behavioral Targeting and Segmentation," and "Demographics and Attitudes of Our Audience."

On the other side of the room, Microsoft showed reporters a handful of projects that are ready for prime time. Some of these were interesting, too.

One set of algorithms differentiates between online buyers and browsers based on the terms they type into search boxes or address bars. The Commercial Intention program knows that if you type Seattle Seahawks, you're probably in the market for information on the football team. But if you type Seattle Seahawks jersey, chances are you're looking to buy one -- despite Sunday's result. The idea is advertisers could better target their keyword advertising based on these results.

Microsoft had promised to announce "a major advertising deal" at the event. The announcement was pushed back until spring, but we did get a glimpse of the technology it centers on.

The company has built software that allows a hyperlink to be attached to specific objects within an online video. In this example from the adLabs Web site, you can hover the mouse over the skier's outfit to get more information about it. Clicking on the link launches a Web page where you could make a purchase.

The company said it will have the first Video Hyperlink advertisement on MSN this spring, in partnership with a major U.S. retailer. Nobody at today's event would say who it was, but Mary Jo Foley mentioned Kohl's department store on her blog.

One of the coolest things on display didn't exactly pertain to online advertising. Microsoft showed computer-vision software that can turn large video displays typically found in airports and other public places into interactive advertising platforms. A Web camera mounted on the screen follows the movements of people in front of it, allowing them to control a mouse cursor by waving their hands in the air.

Researchers demonstrated simple games that could be played in this manner, and other activities that might be interesting to both advertisers and passers-by. The software can also determine men from women and may eventually be able to discern other demographic details such as age and race. It's all in an effort to display better-targeted advertising on the screen and track who sees it.

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Tricia Duryee
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