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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
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.
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.
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:
HTML5Open Source, Microsoft? BAM!Mem’ry of Lee Dirks
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
On March 12 and 13, I had the privilege of joining with more than 450 leading thinkers drawn from around the world and across disciplines at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. Organized by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the summit brought together engineers, artists, economists, designers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers, all striving to achieve the cross-discipline and international cooperation needed to solve global problems.
The Grand Challenges were organized around six themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology, and growth and resilience. The summit also included plenary addresses from Craig Venter, founder of J. Craig Venter Institute, who spoke about the promises and problems of creating synthetic life, and Bill Gates, co-founder and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed challenges in global health. Among the other luminaries present were IET President and tech entrepreneur Andy Hopper, who addressed the technology and growth theme, and Dame Ann Dowling, who spoke on directions in education. The presence of David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and sciences, underscored the significance of the summit as a vehicle for innovations and learning. An additional highlight was the surprise address from will.i.am—singer in the band, the Black Eyed Peas—who made a passionate plea for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for underprivileged children. Acknowledging that many of these youngsters aspire to a successful music career like his, he wants these children to realize that a much wider range of career opportunities is open to them.
I served on the joint organizing committee for the event, representing the Royal Academy of Engineering. My best contribution was organizing the Student Day, which took place on the Monday before the beginning of the summit. Microsoft Research Connections sponsored this event that brought together 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students to collectively tackle the following six grand challenges:
Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.
This event bore a resemblance to the popular US and UK television shows, The Apprentice, or The Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. The 60 participants divided up into teams based on which challenges they wished to tackle, ultimately combining two challenges: “securing cyberspace” and “enhancing virtual reality,” resulting in five teams. The teams went away and engaged in a variety of exercises to demonstrate the creativity and collaborative nature of their ideas. After debating their ideas with their peers, they worked the best into business proposals. At the end of the day, representatives from each of the five teams presented their business innovation, based on their team’s challenge, to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea. The team on health informatics won, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. I was extremely pleased to introduce the winning team as they addressed more than 400 distinguished invitees.
The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. (L to R): Nikhila Ravi (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Choe (MIT), Andrew Whyte (University of Bath), Julie Shi (University of Washington), Michael Morley (IIT), Alison Gerren (University of Toledo) and Carolyn Damo (University of Toledo).
Grappling with grand global challenges and encouraging the development of the next generation of problem solvers—it doesn’t get much better than that!
—Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections
As I listened to U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address in January, I was struck by the emphasis he placed on addressing global climate change and the need for clean energy. “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” the president said, but he also noted that it will spawn technology that “will power new jobs and new industries.”
Data-intensive analysis plays a key role in the design of energy-efficient buildings.© Starp Estudi
Those statements had special resonance for me, as I had recently sat in on discussions of one such new technology: a set of next-generation architectural design tools that will use cloud computing to simulate a future building’s energy consumption. Researchers at Microsoft Research Connections and the Royal Danish Academy are collaborating with Green Prefab, a small startup in northern Italy, to develop these eco-friendly civil engineering tools.
The technology to perform energy-use simulations—parametric building performance simulations, to use the precise terminology—has been around for a while. But despite its potential for optimizing building designs, these energy studies are rarely performed, because complex parametric analysis models require simulation on a scale that is nowadays only attainable in research laboratories that are equipped with enormous computing power. After all, architectural design firms, most of which are small or medium-sized companies, cannot afford the supercomputers that would reduce the simulation time to a manageable level. Happily, cloud computing has the potential to change this.
Green Prefab is developing a library of prefabricated green building components that can be used to design eco-friendly buildings. During the design phase, architects will be able to access civil engineering services in the cloud to produce energy efficiency reports, conduct in-depth structural analysis, and view photo-realistic images of the building—long before the actual groundbreaking. Green Prefab is collaborating with Microsoft Research Connections to develop some of the first tools in the Windows Azure cloud computing environment. And the Institute of Architectural Technology of the Royal Danish Academy has conducted an experiment that proves the potential of this approach.
The Academy’s experiment used Green Prefab’s prototype web-based tools and cloud computing to execute parametric energy simulations, enabling an experienced architect to use 220,184 variable combinations for creating an energy optimization of a hypothetical office building. The objective was to show how architects could use cloud computing to do what heretofore had required extremely large-scale computation clusters. In a parallel experiment, the same architect used the business-as-usual approach on the same building, conceiving and testing 50 design options with a standard dual-core PC.
In the end, the cloud-based approach achieved about twice the potential energy savings: 33 percent, compared to only 17 percent for the conventional method. And using the cloud reduced the computing time to a manageable level: running the 220,184 parametric simulations on a standard dual-core PC would have taken 122 days; running those same energy simulations in the cloud took only three days.
Microsoft Research’s collaboration with Green Prefab leaves little doubt that new cloud-based tools have the potential to aid in the design of buildings that consume substantially less energy than most buildings today. Scientific breakthroughs like these are helping researchers make great strides worldwide in achieving the overall goals of green building—and puts us one step further down that path toward sustainable energy that President Obama envisioned.
—Dennis Gannon, Director of Cloud Research Strategy, Microsoft Research Connections