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March, 2013

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.

March, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    ChronoZoom Named Top Educational Resource at 2013 SXSW Interactive

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    When Microsoft Research teamed up with the University of California Berkeley to create a digital tool for exploring the history of everything, we knew we had the potential to build a killer educational app. After all, a tool that can reveal the cross-currents of history, revealing the interdependencies that cut across disciplines, geographies, and cultures, would offer a major advance in the understanding of Big History—the history of not just humanity, but of life, Earth and, ultimately, the cosmos. Moreover, it would provide researchers with a tool to derive unique insights based on multidisciplinary connections between vastly disparate data sets.

    ChronoZoom wins the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education

    On March 12, the resulting tool, ChronoZoom—a dynamic, zoomable timeline that starts with Big Bang and ends with modern history—won first prize in the Educational Resources category of the 2013 SXSW Interactive Awards. As described on the SXSW website, the SXSW Interactive Awards competition “uncovers the best new digital work, from mobile and tablet apps to websites and installations, while celebrating those who are building tomorrow's interactive trends.”

    ChronoZoom was developed to make time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources. It thus serves as a “master timeline,” tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and aspires to bridge the gap between humanities and the sciences and to bring together and unify all knowledge of the past. With the planned addition of in-browser content and authoring tools, we hope to enable educators and researchers to build timelines; explore rich, multidisciplinary contextual spaces; and to tell and share stories based on authoritative data.

    Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education
    Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education 

    The prestigious SXSW Interactive Award for Education recognizes the educational value of this amazing open-source product. Moreover, it honors the multidisciplinary team that came together to make ChronoZoom a reality: software engineers, program managers, and project leaders at Microsoft Research Connections in Redmond, Washington, and students and professors at Moscow State University in Russia and at UC Berkeley and University of Washington in the United States. This distributed team developed cutting-edge HTML5 and JavaScript code and implemented services on Windows Azure to create a rich, visual database full of historical events and timelines.

    The ChronoZoom project is part of the Outercurve Foundation’s Research Accelerators Gallery. The Outercurve Foundation, a non-profit, open-source foundation, provides software IP management and project development governance to 22 open-source projects.  Developers can get involved by visiting the source code project on GitHub.

    In his acceptance speech, Michael Zyskowski dedicated the award to Lee Dirks, who strongly believed in and supported the ChronoZoom project.

    I encourage you to experience the power of ChronoZoom for yourself. But be forewarned—it can be addictive!

    Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections


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    Seeing Your World Through a Different Light

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    WorldWide Telescope at South by SouthwestAs the saying goes: everything is bigger in Texas. And coming this weekend, March 8 to 10, there will be a couple of Texas-sized telescopes at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin. Housed in the mammoth NASA Experience Tent, a wall-sized display will show off Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), demonstrating the amazing capabilities of the world’s largest virtual telescope. Outside, on the lawn of the Long Center, there will be a full-scale model of the next generation of the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—a truly impressive piece of engineering that’s the size of a tennis court.

    Microsoft Research is partnering with NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Telescope Science Institute to offer a truly interactive exhibit, with University of Texas, Austin, astronomy students on hand to show off details of the JWST model on Microsoft Surface devices. Meanwhile, WWT will provide festival goers with an immersive virtual experience as they fly through the universe and explore the planets and stars. As you may know, the WWT brings together imagery from the world’s best ground and space-based telescopes and combines it with 3-D navigation. It also includes guided tours of interesting places in the sky, created and narrated by astronomers and educators.

    WorldWide Telescope Experience
    WorldWide Telescope Experience

    In addition to the huge WorldWide Telescope display, Microsoft Perceptive Pixel stations will be accessible, enabling visitors to explore space, Earth, and history—all at their fingertips. By using Microsoft Research ChronoZoom, a candidate for a 2013 SXSW Interactive Award, visitors will be able to explore all of history—from the Big Bang to today—and see connections that cut across disciplines and cultures. Prominent participants at SXSW Interactive will include Microsoft researchers, such as Jonathan Fay, who will deliver daily talks on the WWT and participate in the panel session, “Beyond Hubble: NASA's Next Great Telescope (JWST).”

    James Webb Space Telescope
    James Webb Space Telescope

    Another of my Microsoft Researcher colleagues, Donald Brinkman, will take part in the “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvases” panel discussion on the use of applications to visualize works of cultural significance. Donald’s panel will feature demos of applications built on Microsoft Pixelsense and Surface devices that provide both scholars and the public with an intimate and interactive experience of cultural touchstones, such as AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest community-created piece of folk art in the world.

    In addition to the schedule of great talks, we will also be using Skype to broadcast live daily from the NASA clean room at Goddard Space Center for audience Q&A.

    We look forward to seeing you in Texas for truly unique and interactive experience.
     
    Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment; Microsoft Research Connections

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    South by Software—Microsoft’s Excellent Austin Adventure

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    Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending South by Southwest Interactive, one of the largest conferences on emerging technology in the world. The event is held in Austin, Texas, as part of the family of South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals that also include events showcasing music, film, and education.

    Our journey began last year when I was notified that my panel submission had been approved for the conference. The panel, titled “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvases,” showcased recent work by Microsoft Research and its partners to make important cultural artifacts—such as the NAMES Foundation AIDS Quilt—available on the cloud, thereby promoting access to these artifacts and data related to them across many operating systems and devices. The focus of our panel session was how cloud computing and natural user interfaces can help people tell little stories within Big Data—effectively transforming Big Data into Deep Data.

    Model of the future James Webb Space Telescope on display at SxSW
    Model of the future James Webb Space Telescope on display at SXSW

    Soon after the panel was approved, my colleagues on the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) team partnered with NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Telescope Science Institute to create SXSW Interactive exhibits around the James Webb Space Telescope, an amazing infrared telescope that will be launched in 2018. It will reside in an orbit approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where it will probe even greater depths of the universe than the Hubble Telescope has. The exhibits would include 82-inch Perceptive Pixel touch displays, a mammoth video wall, and a 1:1 scale model of the telescope itself, situated outside one of the main SXSW exhibit halls.

    Finally, at the beginning of the year, ChronoZoom was selected as a finalist for the SXSW Interactive Award for educational resources. ChronoZoom is an HTML5 and JavaScript application that enables students, educators, and researchers to visually explore 13.7 billion years of the history of life, the Earth, and the cosmos. The ChronoZoom experience is open source and cross-platform. The goal is to create a sort of visual Wikipedia across which users can craft interactive tours to examine the interconnections between different disciplines in the arts and sciences.

    So it turned out that I would be going to SXSW with a large group of my favorite teammates, researchers, and university collaborators. We began planning how best to make use of this time and tell the story of the exciting work that Microsoft and our partners are doing to promote open access to scientific and humanities data. It was definitely showing promise of becoming an excellent adventure.

    My first day there, I was impressed by the networking potential of this festival: the SXSW attendees were an eclectic mix of techies, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists displaying their creativity and innovative ideas. Everyone is there to pitch their idea and find investors, collaborators, and opportunities.

    I am lucky to work with some of the most talented people in the world on projects to make the world a better place. On Sunday, we held our panel, and I sat with Andy van Dam, Anne Balsamo, and Ethan Watrall to discuss our work with Deep Data and Big Quilts. The session ended emotionally, as Anne and Dale MacDonald had a very special panel of the AIDS quilt brought to the stage. The panel is called “The Last One,” and it was donated with instructions that it should not be sewn into the quilt until a cure for HIV/AIDS is found. Anne expressed her hope that she might live to see this day and encouraged all in attendance to support efforts to end this global pandemic.

    Anne Balsamo and her colleague, Dale MacDonald, display “The Last One,” an AIDS quilt panel that will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure for HIV/AIDS is found.
    Anne Balsamo and her colleague, Dale MacDonald, display “The Last One,” an AIDS quilt panel that will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure for HIV/AIDS is found.

    Meanwhile, the NASA tent was a hive of activity, flooded with visitors exploring the story behind one of the greatest engineering achievements of the twenty-first century. The James Webb Space Telescope is an amazing device. The surface of its mirror is so smooth that if the entire object was enlarged to the size of the state of Texas, the largest irregularity would be less than 10cm tall. There were live Skype calls to the largest clean room in the world at NASA, animated descriptions of the deployment process, and terrific interactive exhibits on WorldWide Telescope and ChronoZoom. The next night, our team took part in setting a new Guinness World Record for the largest outdoor astronomy lesson, with 526 people learning how light and color are used by astronomers to understand celestial objects.

    Finally, the SXSW awards ceremony arrived. ChronoZoom was one of five finalists for the Interactive Award for educational resources. I sat with our team while actress and comedian Aisha Tyler provided animated commentary as the finalists and winners were announced. When our team was called, we were amazed, but we recovered quickly and took the stage, where my colleague, Michael Zyskowski, gave our 140-characters-or-less acceptance speech in the form of a Haiku:

    HTML5
    Open Source, Microsoft? BAM!
    Mem’ry of Lee Dirks

    Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education
    Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education

    This was a terrific moment for Microsoft Research, but it was an even greater moment for Microsoft. Microsoft took home three SXSW Interactive awards this year, including Best of Show. The two applications (ChronoZoom and Contre Jour) are both cross-platform and work on just about any device you can imagine, including most smartphones. Microsoft is blazing the trail for interoperability and open access on so many levels. I hope that these awards help to promote the great work that our company is doing in this space and encourage other corporations to pursue similar work.

    All told, SXSW was an amazing experience. It brought together so many good people doing good things, and it encouraged us to celebrate the hard work we perform every day to make dreams into realities. Austin should be commended for incubating so many talented people, not just software developers, but filmmakers, musicians, and artists, bringing them into one place to mingle, merge, and multiply their visions around the world. I feel fortunate to share this world with so many talented people.

    Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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