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As 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
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
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
In December 2011, Dr. danah boyd and I were pleased to announce an RFP (request for proposal), funded by the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research, for projects that investigate the role of technology in the human trafficking of minors in the United States. In that announcement, we provided a framework for thinking about the intersections between technology and human trafficking. Today, June 13, 2012, I’m happy to announce that the recipients of these funds have been selected. After reviewing many promising proposals, we have allocated a total grant of US$185,000 among six proposals, each of which involves unique, imperative research. We are excited about the progress we expect to make in understanding the role of technology in human trafficking with the work of these amazing researchers. The recipients are:
Today, human trafficking stands the fastest growing criminal industry in the world; in fact, this form of modern-day slavery has the dubious distinction of ranking alongside the trade in illegal arms as the second-largest international criminal industry, trailing only drug dealing. The research funded by these grants is sorely needed. It is very encouraging to see the significant actions taken against this heinous crime in the past year. Government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations are working to increase awareness, research, and action in this area. One area all these organizations highlight is the need for more data and rigorous research on the extent of the human-trafficking problem, which includes understanding technology’s role in human trafficking. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of verifiable data on exactly how technology is abetting the crime—or how technology might be used to combat it.
The Microsoft Digital Crime Unit and Microsoft Research hope to make a difference by funding research that will yield valuable data about the role that technology plays in child sex trafficking, with the ultimate goal of developing new disruptive approaches and innovations to address the problem. As a technology service provider, Microsoft has a stake in ensuring that its technologies are not contributing to crime, particularly crimes against children. We hope to use the findings and insights from these projects to drive advancements in the fight against trafficking.
As the lead for Microsoft Research Connections’ initiative on Growing Women in Computing, I strongly believe that support of research into technology’s role in societal issues will excite a new generation of women about the potential of careers in computer science. Today, only approximately 1,800 women graduate from computer science programs in the United States; we need to inspire more young women to pursue careers in the field and make breakthroughs in areas that are relevant to women. Their research will not only help us understand how to begin addressing the crime of human trafficking, but will also inspire more young women to pursue careers where they can make a positive impact in society. These women will help us solve societal problems and use technology in ways we can’t imagine.
I want to congratulate the recipients cited above, and I look forward to building a rigorous academic community of social scientists, economists, business researchers, legal researchers, psychologists, and computer scientist to help solve the scourge of human trafficking.
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
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.
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