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July, 2012

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

July, 2012

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    A Quilt, a Map, and a Few Good Apps

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    As I was preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., for the 2012 exhibition of the AIDS Quilt and the International AIDS Conference, it occurred to me that this journey began a little less than a year ago, in nearly the same spot. I first learned about the AIDS Quilt project from Brett Bobley, CIO of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH offices are just a short walk from the National Mall, where I am spending three days with a small group of volunteers unpacking, unfolding, arranging, displaying, refolding, and repacking the more than 6,000 blocks that comprise the AIDS Quilt. If it weren’t for Brett, I might never have made this journey, learned this story, and played a small part in raising awareness of a global pandemic.

    Digital likeness of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
    Zoomable digital likeness of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, running in Bing Maps

    I went to visit Brett last year to discuss the recently launched Digging into Data Challenge. Digging into Data is a program of grants to explore ways that technology can be used to illuminate the vast digital repositories that universities, libraries, and museums have established over the last few decades. Over lunch, I described to Brett the many technologies that Microsoft Research has developed to help people tell stories with data, including ChronoZoom, Rich Interactive Narratives, Large Art Display on the Surface, Silverlight PivotViewer, Layerscape, and Bing Maps. Brett, in turn, described many terrific NEH projects, but one in particular stuck in my head: a startup grant awarded to create an Interactive Tabletop Device for Humanities Exhibitions.

    For the next part of the story, we need to travel more than 2,500 miles to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Labs, where I met with researcher Anne Balsamo. It was she who won the grant for the tabletop, and it was her idea to partner with the NAMES Project Foundation to create digital interactive exhibits to support the AIDS Quilt exhibitions of 2012.

    Anne spoke of the challenges she faced. There are more than 55 GB of quilt images taken over a span of 25 years. Each image is a block of eight quilt panels sewn together. That amounts to more than 49,000 individual quilt panels, each with associated metadata. In order to make her exhibit come to life, Anne needed to stitch these images together as well as cut them up—in the cloud. Anne also needed a way to smoothly zoom and explore the immense tapestry of the virtually stitched quilt. The entire quilt measures approximately 1.3 million square feet—around 24 acres—and browsing across it is not a simple matter. Finally, Anne wondered if we could do more than create a single static quilt. Could we dynamically re-stitch the quilt into different configurations based on the metadata?

    As we talked, I realized that Microsoft Research had all of the technology pieces Anne needed—five of them, to be precise. To cut and stitch the virtual quilt, we could use Windows Azure to create cloud data stores and run stitch/unstitch scripts across multiple cores. To zoom and explore the quilt, we could use a combination of Silverlight Deep Zoom paired with both Large Art Display on Surface, for a high-fidelity experience, and Bing Maps, for a cross-platform experience. Finally, to dynamically reconfigure the quilt, we could use PivotViewer.

    But this is easier said than done. Anne had a very small budget and hiring a vendor to do just one of these tasks would probably consume all of it. How could we fund such a massive endeavor with only a few short months until the exhibition? The answer: we wouldn’t.

    Here at Microsoft, we have an initiative called the Garage, which brings together employees from all over the world who are interested in collaborating on side projects. I reached out to the Garage and asked if anyone would like to volunteer to help with the quilt project. Within hours, I had close to a dozen volunteers, including three developers who jumped right in and began the work of stitching the quilt and creating prototypes. Within a week, they had a proof of concept up and running in Bing Maps, enabling you to be one of the first people in the world to view the quilt in its entirety.

    Still we needed more help. We needed teams to create the interactive exhibitions that would illuminate the stories of those whose lives have been lost to AIDS. We called upon the University of Iowa and Brown University to help create these exhibits. We provided them with four Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense devices—large, interactive-touch tabletops that allow people to touch the virtual quilt, explore its story, and share its contents. These groups created the AIDS Quilt Touch application and the NAMES table, an interactive display that allows visitors to view the names memorialized in the quilt and physically explore the images as a single, stitched panorama.

    In late June, the AIDS Quilt was packed into trucks and shipped from the NAMES Project Foundation headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. The quilt was displayed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 27 to July 1 and again July 4 to July 8, where an estimated 1.5 million people viewed it. The quilt is again on display on the National Mall July 21 to 25, covering the entire mall once a day over three consecutive days. On the fourth day, we will display a single panel—a special panel called “the last one,” which will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure is found. On that day, we will ask the question: “When will we be able to say that the quilt is complete—that no one will ever die from this disease again?” I hope to see that day, and thanks to a distributed group of developers and researchers across the United States, we are able to bring the quilt to your desktop so that you can ponder that question and perhaps help find the answer.

    Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    A Time(line) for Reflection

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    AIDS. Like many people, I was aware of the disease but had only a basic understanding of the history and impact of the AIDS pandemic. That all changed for me, thanks to my involvement in the AIDS Quilt Project. My name is Madison Allen, and I’m a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. I got involved with the AIDS Quilt through my work on ChronoZoom, an ambitious tool that strives to tell the history of everything—from the moment of the Big Bang until now—on a zoomable timeline.

    ChronoZoom - A 30 Year History of AIDS

    When Roland Saekow, one of the original developers of ChronoZoom, first sent out a proposal for a history of AIDS timeline (as suggested to him by Donald Brinkman and Rane Johnson at Microsoft Research), I was immediately intrigued. I contacted Roland and, after some initial background research, I quickly realized the importance of this project. Though I originally knew very little about the subject, I was eager to expand my knowledge and become part of such a worthy undertaking.

    Soon I was receiving data from Professor Anne Balsamo and graduate students Lauren Fenton and Rosemary Comella of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. As I began to input the data into the ChronoZoom AIDS timeline, I started to understand the far-reaching potential of this project.

    The greatest challenge was deciding what to include in the timeline—there is such a wealth of information on the history of both AIDS and the quilt itself. We wanted to include much more, but given the project’s time restrictions, we were forced to make difficult decisions. It was also a challenge to represent the historical facts while simultaneously stressing the tragic personal effect that AIDS has had on millions of people. Striking a balance among the personal, medical, historical, and political aspects of AIDS was extremely challenging, as each aspect adds its own unique part to the incredibly complex history of AIDS. Working with such a heart-wrenching topic was also sobering for me.

    I hope this timeline will convey the sweeping impact of AIDS. No part of the world, no gender, no community has gone untouched. Countless lives have been devastated by both the disease and the stigma that has long been associated with it. I was shocked to discover that nearly as many lives have been destroyed by discrimination as by the actual illness. I hope that people will take the information in the timeline and use it to work actively in promoting a more accepting environment for those afflicted with AIDS. I also hope that there will be renewed and reinvigorated efforts to find a cure and to distribute medicine to those who desperately need it but cannot afford it. Around the world, so many people suffer from lack of medicine and care. This week’s display of the AIDS Quilt in its entirety in Washington, D.C., will, I hope, send a message that is heard around the world—a clarion call to remedy the current situation.

    The ChronoZoom technology brings the timeline to life, allowing people to see the interwoven histories of AIDS and the AIDS Quilt side by side, while also placing the disease in the greater context of human history. It gives people the unique opportunity to learn about AIDS through different media and from different viewpoints. The incredible deep zoom function even allows people to view the quilt in its entirety at specific moments in history, illustrating the growth of the quilt and the continuing onslaught of AIDS. In the future, we hope to include additional unique interviews and stories to further demonstrate the impact of AIDS on a more personal level.

    This project has been an incredible learning experience for me. Prior to working on the timeline, my understanding of AIDS and its worldwide impact was incomplete, to say the least. Though my knowledge is far from complete now, I have begun to grasp the complex and tragic effect that AIDS has had on millions. More than just a disease, AIDS is a lifelong battle for both health and acceptance. I feel so honored to have participated in this project and hope it will increase awareness about AIDS and, by so doing, foster greater acceptance and promote efforts toward finding a cure. The timeline, like the quilt, will serve as a reminder of and tribute to all those who have fallen victim to the devastation of AIDS and will provide hope for an AIDS-free future.
     
    Madison Allen, guest blogger

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    Seventh Cambridge PhD Summer School: the Biggest and Busiest Yet

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    Participants from the seventh PhD Summer School in CambridgeAlmost 90 PhD students convened for the seventh PhD Summer School

    The first week of July was an exciting one for us here at Microsoft Research Cambridge, as we hosted the seventh PhD Summer School. Each year, we invite scholars in the Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Programme, as well as students from partnering universities and institutions, to join us in Cambridge, England, for a week of immersive research, technical talks, transferrable skills talks, poster sessions, and socializing.

    This year’s event was attended by almost 90 students from across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Attendees came from as far afield as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and from 14 European countries. Our Russian guests included the five winners of the Microsoft Research Computer Vision Contest. We also welcomed nine students from the EU-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network TransForm, which partners with our Cambridge Systems and Networking group.

    Our school “curriculum” featured research talks covering the spectrum of work being done across our lab research groups. Topics included computational methods for planetary prediction, software verification, functional programming, datacenter performance, medical imaging, and crowdsourcing. Our technical talks covered Microsoft and Microsoft Research technologies including Kinect for Windows, .NET Gadgeteer, Microsoft Academic Search, F#, and cloud technologies.

    In addition to the technical discussions, we also spent some time focusing on personal development. This year’s talks included several Summer School classics such as “How to Write a Great Research Paper and Give a Great Talk” by Simon Peyton-Jones and “A Rough Guide to Being an Entrepreneur” by Jack Lang from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University. We also included some new talks in the mix, including discussions on “Strategic Thinking for Researchers” and “Intellectual Property at Microsoft.”

    PhD scholar Olle Fredriksson, from the University of Birmingham, explains his research to PhD student Janina Voigt, from the Cambridge Computer Lab. We weren’t the only presenters at this year’s Summer School. Our students displayed their research to dozens of Microsoft researchers during our three lunchtime poster sessions. 32 of our Microsoft PhD scholars, whose PhD studies are funded through Microsoft Research Connections, had the opportunity to meet with their Microsoft co-supervisors during this period as well.

    “[The students] really liked the poster session, especially the opportunity to get direct, one-to-one relevant feedback from Microsoft senior researchers,” said Jon Crowcroft, professor of Communications Systems in the Cambridge Computer Lab and PhD supervisor/advisor to some of the attending students.

    Summer intern Soorat Bhat presents his demo to PhD student Tatiana Novikova, from Moscow State University, during the DemoFest. Senior scientist Drew Purves presents in the background.Incentivized by the Alan Turing Centenary, we wanted to do something special this year, so we organized a networking event one afternoon. The afternoon began with a pair of keynote talks: “Can Computers Understand Their Own Programs?” by principal researcher and ACM Turing Award winner Sir Tony Hoare, and “The EDSAC Replica Project” by former Lab Director Andrew Herbert. The afternoon continued with a DemoFest, featuring Microsoft Research technologies and five winning projects from the Computer Vision Contest.

    We all enjoyed the week tremendously and wish the “class” of 2012 all the best. We already look forward to next year’s Summer School!

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA

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