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Bouncing Ideas: VU prof takes 'non-trivial' science to Microsoft
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VUSE's Yi Cui
A very small episode from the microcosm of a Vanderbilt scientist suggests maybe these people need to get out more often.

Granted, this instance may add-up to no more than a speck of knowledge alongside a scientific footnote. But, within it, there's a hint of what could happen if campus ideas got more oxygen through exposure to off-campus tech executives and investors.

Here's how it goes:  Next time the "Lost" episode you're watching on your computer skips a beat or you're watching your 500th grainy video on YouTube.com, think of Nashville's Yi Cui.

Cui is a 34-year-old assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. In addition to his larger work on ubiquitous computing and wireless networks, he spends a lot of time thinking about how to make downloading better and less expensive.

On Monday, he'll travel to Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash. There, he'll share his findings with Microsoft scientists who are also studying how computers in homes and offices all over the world can be more effectively lashed together in peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks and nodes, to reduce the bandwidth consumed by downloading large files -- video, in particular.

Microsoft, because of its interest in providing its own P2P video-on-demand solutions and its concern for such things as digital-rights management and thwarting piracy of its software, will hear Cui's presentation next week and post it in virtual perpetuity within the company's internal webcast archive.

Early-on in an interview with VNC this week, and with a tone of wry acceptance, Cui -- despite National Science Foundation honors for his work -- said he realizes his P2P proposals are, thus far, not likely to win a patent; are too far down the technology value chain to anchor a profitable enterprise; don't lend themselves to the kind of academic publishing he's expected to perform; and, are probably viewed as "trivial-but-useful" by most observers.

Cui added that even BitTorrent Inc., the company formed to maintain the original BitTorrent communications protocol for the Internet -- with what Cui describes as "historical" impact -- has not yet produced profits.

Rest assured, however, Microsoft engineers have focused on this not-so-trivial issue for years. No surprise, given the company's interest in interactive video, software and video games.

They'll no doubt be interested in such Cui assertions as these: P2P could achieve 90 percent bandwidth reduction in some operations -- but cannot independently support high-quality video-on-demand and must, instead, work in aggressive alliance with traditional download servers. His work also suggests a simple interface button for the consumer-user and some refinements of the hybrid P2P-assisted network that improve the viewing-while-downloading experience.

Cui, who has visited Mt. Microsoft several times previously via the company's academic outreach programs, networked his way to a presentation via some of his former University of Illinois classmates, who now work for the giant. "I was doing the selling," said self-deprecating Cui.

At a minimum, Cui said he hopes to convince Microsoft to conduct a large-scale test of his P2P enhancements, so that he can determine how well it performs. His smaller -scale tests over VandyVideo and tests of similar approaches by scientists elsewhere suggest the approach can produce substantial reductions in Internet traffic, bandwidth consumption and related expenditures.

Asked yesterday to comment on a whitepaper Cui produced on his P2P work, tech entrepreneur Tim Choate (at left), founder of Nashville-based Bondware Inc. and, among other ventures, the global Renderosity Art Community, e-mailed this reply:

"This appears to be valuable and timely research highly relevant to the current debate on 'net neutrality' and bandwidth metering by broadband internet service providers."

Choate said that while most newspaper publishers and other media outlets that are adding video content to their websites are still using more or less centralized server downloading systems, the work of "Cui and others opens the possibility" of "a business model for P2P" that might enable companies to concentrate servers and supply bandwidth as needed, reminiscent of "the 'wheeling' of power in electric grids, where independent producers sell their power into the grid.

"Under this business model," Choate continued, "individual businesses could invest independently in the infrastructure required to be a node in the network and receive payment for their participation in the delivery of content."

Advised of Choate's response, Cui seemed delighted and encouraged. Perhaps Vanderbilt and the business community will find a way to bring scientists and regional executives together more often.

Meanwhile, there may be a threat in all this.  After all, Cui, who told VNC he'd love to work on P2P issues full-time, is headed to Microsoft for a week with former classmates who share his interest. Related story: Nashville tech boom awaits 'The Big One', right here.

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Tags: BitTorrent, Bondware, commercialization, innovation, Microsoft, Renderosity, technology transfer, Tim Choate, Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, Yi Cui

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