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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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    Tune in to the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2012

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     Join us online for the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit

    What are the big challenges and hot trends in computer science research? How are the academic community and Microsoft Research working collaboratively to use computing to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems? On July 16 and 17, 400 elite academic investigators will explore these questions with Microsoft researchers during the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, Washington.

    But you don’t have to be in Redmond to benefit from this outstanding event. Selected keynotes and panel discussions will be streamed live from the Microsoft Conference Center, and engaging, informative live interviews with top researchers will be broadcast from Microsoft Studios. You can tune in to the live, streaming broadcasts from 9:00 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. Pacific Time (12:00 P.M. to 4:30 P.M. Eastern Time) on the Virtual Event page. And don’t miss the special closing keynote from David Breashears, “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya,” on July 17 at 4:30 P.M. Pacific Time (7:30 P.M. Eastern Time).  

    Please join us as we explore trends in data-intensive, data-driven research—what we like to call “big data, big insights”—and as we probe the growing movement toward blending virtual and physical reality through advances in natural user interface. Learn about developments in social media, Internet governance, and the use of technology to combat criminal activity. And see how technology is impacting teaching and the creation of rich interactive narratives. What’s more, you can participate by tweeting your questions and comments during the live broadcasts by using the Twitter hashtag #FacSumm.

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    The Microsoft Research Faculty Summit is dedicated to expanding the boundaries of using technological development to solve real-world problems, whether social or scientific. From harnessing the power of data for analysis and insights, to algorithms for managing election data and detecting malware, to future digital homes and natural user interfaces, software is experiencing rapid change. The 2012 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit unites academic researchers, educators, and Microsoft researchers, product group engineers, and software architects to explore these and other new opportunities and challenges in computer science research—and you can be part of this exciting event via the live, streaming broadcasts.

    So mark your calendar and clean your display screen: the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2012 is headed to a device near you.

    Harold Javid, Director, The Americas, Microsoft Research Connections

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    David Breashears Brings the Himalayan Region to Life

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    The participants in the 2012 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit gained new appreciation for the changes facing the globe as David Breashears navigated the massive archive of photographic data that his team has gathered in many climbs through the Himalaya Mountains. We came away with a vivid understanding of how far glaciers have retreated in these mountains over the past 100 years.

    Who better than David Breashears to bring the story to life through the means of computing? Filmmaker, adventurer, and mountaineer David Breashears has brought nature to life on film for more than 30 years. He is also the founder and executive director of GlacierWorks.

    Archival photos and GlacierWorks imagery of the Himalaya Mountains demonstrate the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and river systems of Asia.
    Archival photos and GlacierWorks imagery of the Himalaya Mountains demonstrate the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and river systems of Asia.

    David lives a life of adventure most of us only dream about. He has led more than 40 expeditions to the Himalayan region and worked on dozens of documentary film projects since 1979. David has reached the summit of Mount Everest five times! He was also producer, director, and expedition leader for Everest, one of the most successful IMAX films ever made. He has led, and continues to lead, a fascinating life.

    David’s keynote focused on his work with GlacierWorks, a non-profit organization that uses art and science to vividly document how the Himalayan glaciers are changing before our very eyes. The Himalaya Mountains are home to some of the world’s most beautiful peaks and thousands of high-altitude glaciers. The glaciers provide seasonal water flows to rivers throughout Asia. These precious flows have been disappearing at an alarming rate, however.

    Since 2007, GlacierWorks teams have embarked on 10 expeditions, each carefully retracing the steps of early mountain photographers. Meticulously captured images match their predecessors’ work. Comparing the images, GlacierWorks identified an alarming loss of ice in the region.

    David and his team are building a resource to share their information with students. They have been collaborating with Microsoft Research to create an immersive Internet experience that enables a richer interaction with GlacierWorks’ massive photographic database. At the heart of this collaboration is Rich Interactive Narratives (RIN). RIN combines traditional forms of storytelling with new visualization technologies to create compelling interactive digital narratives.

    For the Himalayas project, the team is combining archival media and GlacierWorks imagery to demonstrate the impact that climate change is having on the glaciers and river systems of Asia. The team is hopeful that an engaging and educational interactive experience will appeal to today’s students, and inspire them to investigate climate change further.

    We have made David Breashears' keynote available online. I encourage you to view this incredible presentation for yourself. You can also find more information about Breashears and his work through these resources:

    Harold Javid, Director, The Americas, Microsoft Research Connections

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