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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.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    WWT brings astronomy to life for children of all ages

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    The night sky holds a special fascination for children worldwide. They gaze at the moon and stars shining overhead, and wonder what they are and how they got there. This natural curiosity is dampened, however, for children who live in urban areas, where air and light pollution dim the celestial show. With only a pale version of the night sky visible to them, their natural fascination with the heavens can wane, their attention turning to the brighter displays of video games. And while we have nothing against video games, we at Microsoft Research are pleased to offer youngsters the chance to be captivated again by the stories written on the canvas of the sky. Thanks to Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), anyone can see the night sky in all its glory and be enraptured by endlessly fascinating tours of the heavens.

    WorldWide Telescope offers youngsters the chance to observe the night sky and tour the universe
    WorldWide Telescope offers youngsters the chance to observe the night sky and
    tour the universe

    Last year, we saw how WWT can bring the excitement of astronomy to Asian schoolchildren when Microsoft Research helped install a WWT-driven planetarium at the Shixinlu primary school in China. This installation enables students not only to see and study the stars and the universe in an immersive planetarium setting, but it also allows them to create their own tours of the heavens and have them displayed on the planetarium dome. To give youngsters even more opportunities to explore the mysteries of the universe with WWT, Microsoft Research Asia has provided WWT training for Chinese teachers since 2010. These teachers bring what they have learned back to the classroom, setting up interactive, multimedia courses that use WWT to teach about the stars and planets in a most engaging way.

    In 2013, Microsoft Research Asia helped introduce Japanese children and parents to the wonders of the stars through two WWT family events at Miraikan, Japan’s national science museum, located in Tokyo. Each event hosted 10 families and were treated to an event composed of three parts.

    The first part of the event taught the children and parents how to use the WWT program on Windows 8-based laptops. The youngsters rapidly mastered the software, easily completing a challenge to find the constellation representative of their birth month and identify its brightest star.

    Participants in the event at Miraikan viewed an original WWT tour.
    Participants in the event at Miraikan viewed an original WWT tour.

    During the event’s second act, the families were treated to an original WWT tour that had been converted to play in Miraikan’s unique three-screen, stereoscopic theater. Lasting 20 minutes, the tour told two stories: the journey of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft from Earth to Neptune past Jupiter and Saturn, and the development of the telescope, from early devices like Galileo’s refracting telescope to such technological marvels as the Palomar Observatory, Gemini Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The children and adults alike were captivated not only by the content, but also by the ability of WWT to provide such educational and motivational resources. Many of the youngsters were eager to try their hand at creating WWT tours of their own!

    The third part of the event took place on the roof of the Miraikan building, where six optical telescopes had been set up for viewing Jupiter or Saturn around 7:00 P.M. Unfortunately, during the first event the sky in Tokyo was too cloudy for observations. Children at the second event were luckier and got good views of the planets, which reinforced their growing interest in learning more about the cosmos. In fact, participants at both events were excited by astronomy and eager to install WWT on their home computers. The events clearly demonstrated the potential of WWT to inspire Japanese schoolchildren (and their parents) to study the night sky.

    WWT has the potential to inspire children, as well as adults, to study the night sky.The events also demonstrate our commitment to share high quality research results, such as WWT, with Asian education systems. Tim Pan, University Relations Director of Microsoft Research Asia, reinforces this message, stressing that “Microsoft Research Asia has always endeavored to bring science to the general public. We see Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope technology as an ideal tool for public science education in Asia—opening the door to the vast, mysterious universe."

    If you, too, are ready to explore the wonders of the stars and planets with WWT, you’ll be glad to know that the client is freely available at www.worldwidetelescope.org.

    —Noboru Kuno, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Bringing cloud computing to researchers and scientists in Asia

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    Today’s world is more interconnected than ever. The digital revolution has made it possible to collaborate with colleagues worldwide—which is good news not just for businesses, but also for all fields of scientific research. We’ve also witnessed a tremendous rise in big data analytics—which is making a big impact on how research is conducted.

    These changes have been particularly rapid and powerful in Asia. Today, researchers in Asia are awash in the data deluge, as they, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, strive to organize, analyze, and utilize big data in genetics, urban planning, ecology, and economics, just to name a few areas.

    Microsoft Azure for Research program expands through Asia

    The computing resources required to handle big data can be enormous, often stretching beyond what is available in even a large standalone data center. This is where the computational power and scalability of cloud computing really shines. To help scientific researchers learn how to take advantage of cloud computing, Microsoft Research developed the Microsoft Azure for Research program, which helps researchers harness the power of Microsoft Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform.

    For Microsoft Research Asia, it has been an exciting and inspiring journey to promote Microsoft Azure in the Asia-Pacific region during the past year. One of the most compelling components of the Microsoft Azure for Research program is a series of free training events that are being offered at sites throughout the world. These classes, which are open to researchers and students from universities and nonprofit research laboratories, provide hands-on training on how to use Microsoft Azure to conduct data-intensive science. Participants access Microsoft Azure through a browser on their own laptop (regardless of operating system), as experts guide them through the ins and outs of performing data-intensive research in the cloud. The training content starts with the basics of cloud computing and progresses to advanced topics on the use of Microsoft Azure for research.

    To date, we have held nine of these two-day events in Asia: two in Beijing, two in Taiwan, and one each in Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Nanjing. Attendees have included more than 420 of faculty members and graduate students representing a spectrum of scientific disciplines, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the participants, Dr. Guangjun Zhang of Peking University, observed, “the Azure for Research training guided us in becoming familiar with web sites, virtual machines, cloud services, and related topics. It also gave us the opportunity to get answers and advice from experts from Microsoft Research. The training imparted a lot of positive inspiration.” Yohan Chon, a PhD candidate from Yonsei University who attended the training in Korea, commented that the training “was very practical and useful.”

    We plan to hold more Microsoft Azure for Research training events in additional locations in the future. Meanwhile, we are working on the Microsoft Azure for Research Award program, which offers sizable grants of Microsoft Azure resources for worthy proposals. As of now, 34 research proposals from Asia have been selected by the Microsoft Azure global team. We anticipate positive outcomes from these proposals and look forward to continuing to help researchers in the Asia-Pacific region use Microsoft Azure for their research. The deadline for the current round of proposals for Microsoft Azure for Research Awards is Tuesday, April 15; the next submission deadline will be June 15.

    Microsoft Azure is a powerful and highly reliable tool for data-intensive scientific research, and we are extremely pleased to be offering these training events and grants to help researchers tap into the power and efficiency of cloud computing.

    —Tim Pan, UR Director, Microsoft Research Asia

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Cloud computing charts a path to scientific discovery

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    With the rapid rise of data-intensive scientific research—across disciplines and around the globe—scientists in Asia, as elsewhere, face massive computing needs and challenges.

    Mindful of our role in helping scientists turn big data into big discoveries, Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia has collaborated closely with domestic and international researchers on a wide range of topics, including the environment, data modeling, biological computing, climate change, and urban computing.

    Asia embraces the cloud

    As part of these collaborative efforts, we have worked to help researchers apply Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud-computing platform, to data-intensive scientific research. As Eric Chang, senior director of technology strategy at Microsoft Research Asia, observes, “In this era of big data, cloud computing offers scientists a platform for dealing with massive amounts of data and the growing requirements of distributed, multidisciplinary collaborations to drive new discoveries.” Here, then, are five examples of our collaborative efforts to harness the power of the cloud for scientific research.

    Understanding ecological and hydrologic processes and their interactions in large watersheds is important to a society in need of sustainable freshwater supplies. As part of a major new research program, Professor Chunmiao Zheng and Researcher Guoliang Cao of Peking University are using Microsoft Azure to support comprehensive data processing and numerical modeling of the hydrologic cycle of the Heihe River Basin, and to continue developing cloud computing as a cost-effective solution to large-scale integrated eco-hydrologic modeling.

    Numerical modeling of eco-hydrological processes in the Heihe river basin using Microsoft AzureNumerical modeling of eco-hydrological processes in the Heihe
    River basin using Microsoft Azure

    Facilitating the analysis of climate data: Sea ice is an important component of the Earth’s climate system, and coupled climate models are indispensable tools in its study. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) provides a set of coordinated climate model experiments for use by climate-modeling groups. By intercomparing the resulting model outputs, CMIP can assess the mechanisms responsible for model differences, determining why similar models produce a range of responses. A total of 1.5 petabytes of model output data, including sea-ice data, was produced by more than 30 modeling groups around the world during CMIP5 (the project’s fifth phase). Unfortunately, CMIP’s current web-based data dissemination system supports only data search and download. All other necessary data processing functions must be performed by researchers in their local facilities. Professor Yuqi Bai of Tsinghua University led his group to establish an integrated research environment for archiving, searching, analyzing, and intercomparing CMIP5 data with the CMIP5 Sea Ice Data Portal. This pilot project clearly demonstrates Microsoft Azure’s value in enabling a web-based, data-intensive computing environment.

    An integrated research environment for archiving, searching, analyzing, and intercomparing climate model output data with CMIP5 Sea Ice Data Portal
    An integrated research environment for archiving, searching, analyzing, and intercomparing climate model output data with CMIP5 Sea Ice Data Portal

    Studying terrestrial ecosystems: Terrestrial ecosystems influence climate through a complex system of bio-geophysical feedback, including carbon and water exchange with the atmosphere. Honglin He, Fan Li, and Xiaoli Ren of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been working to build a carbon-water flux data storage system for the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem. Their system would enable model simulation and provide a platform for uncertainty analysis. The researchers based their system on Microsoft Azure’s virtually unlimited storage capacity and its data-intensive computing architecture, which can handle enormous amounts of multisource heterogeneous data.

    Improving healthcare. Professor Yan Xu of Beihang University has been conducting research on the value of using large-scale histopathology image analysis to detect colon cancer, a common and potentially deadly disease that has a huge impact on public health. While such images provide an excellent tool for detecting early-stage colon cancer, a digitized histopathological image at 40 times resolution is roughly 15,000 x 15,000 pixels. Microsoft Research Asia is applying Microsoft Azure to histopathology classification, segmentation, and clustering, a project that will help physicians improve the accuracy of their diagnoses, thereby helping to reduce costs and save lives.

    Cataloguing biodiversity: The Biodiversity Heritage Library is an international cooperative project that has scanned and openly shares more than 100,000 volumes—totaling some 43 million pages and 97 million species records. Zheping Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is leading a project that will extract information from the library’s vast store of biodiversity literature, unearthing buried information about the distribution of species. The project will generate different thematic maps, enabling researchers to extract information on species distribution according to time or region, as well as to use file formats from Bing Map and other online mapping products to display multiple types of geographic information in new ways. This information can be used in efforts to further conservation efforts and wildlife management.  

    These five pioneering projects demonstrate the immense value of using Microsoft Azure in scientific research. Moreover, these early efforts strengthen our determination to bring “cloud power” to researchers from diverse disciplines.

    To learn more about Microsoft Research’s efforts to help scientific researchers accelerate their discoveries through the computational and collaborative power of Microsoft Azure, visit Microsoft Azure for Research.

    Xin Ma, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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