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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

    Presenting the History of Everything


    ChronoZoom: an infinite canvas in time

    Today, March 14—Einstein’s birthday no less—marks the release of the beta version of an incredible new tool for the study of history: ChronoZoom. This powerful open-source tool, a joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, will be unveiled at the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) Conference and is available for download.

    What, you might ask, is so wonderful about ChronoZoom? After all, history resources abound. There are thousands of digital repositories, collections, libraries, and websites full of images, videos, documents, facts, and figures—not to mention the wealth of content squirreled away in private offices, personal computers, and university servers. But the sheer volume and disparate locations of these resources confound researchers, educators, and students, who spend untold hours searching this information, seeking to better understand history and its lessons for our future. What if we had a tool that could bring all these resources together?

    Moreover, despite increasing collaboration, the sciences and humanities are still largely taught and researched in silos. For example, when I took an East Asian Studies course in college, I learned what was happening in China in the 1400s, but not what was going on in the Middle East or Africa or Latin America, or what was taking place in the scientific realms of physics and chemistry. If we brought these worlds together, would we ask different questions? Would we arrive at new understandings of the past, resulting in different innovations and insights today?

    Such are the questions we hope to answer with ChronoZoom, which makes time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources, including videos, text, charts, schematics, images, articles, and other multimedia content. ChronoZoom thus serves as a "master timeline," tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and it aspires to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. In the spirit of “make no small plans,” ChronoZoom seeks to unify all knowledge of the past and to make this information easy to understand.

    In so doing, ChronoZoom emerges as a potentially vital tool in the evolving field of Big History, which attempts to unify the past—all of the past, from the beginning of time, some 13.7 billion years ago, to the present—through the four major regimes: cosmic history, Earth history, life history, and human history. Big History offers a broad understanding of how the past has unfolded, and it lets us explore the unifying characteristics that can bridge the intellectual chasm between the humanities and the sciences.

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    Today’s release of ChronoZoom is especially exciting for me because this tool was made by the academic community for the academic community. There’s no other timeline tool today that is supported by such a vast number of experts in different disciplines around the world. ChronoZoom has two communities that are led by two outstanding universities:

    • The content community, which provided the digital content to populate and share on ChronoZoom, led by Professor Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow at the University of California, Berkeley
    • The development community, which built the feature set to bring ChronoZoom to life, led by Dr. Sergey Berezin at Moscow State University.

    In addition, significant student involvement sets ChronoZoom apart. On the dev side, more than 80 percent of ChronoZoom is the work of undergraduate and graduate computer science students at Moscow State. The amazing application you can explore today was developed in three months by these students with support from Microsoft Research engineers. Similarly, 90 percent of the content in ChronoZoom was organized and developed by students at Cal Berkeley. 

    Today’s release is a call to action to the academic community to try ChronoZoom in their classrooms and then vote on its features and let us know what could make the tool even more useful. For academic experts and digital collection owners, it’s an opportunity to help determine the content that should be in ChronoZoom. For computer science institutions and developers around the world, it’s a call to join our open-source community and help us build the next set of features.

    ChronoZoom has a long history and has gone through different phases of development. In the spring of 2009, Roland Saekow had the good fortune of taking Professor Alvarez's Big History course. During the course, Professor Alvarez used a variety of tools, from log scales to multi-sheet paper timelines, to convey the vast time scales of Big History.

    Luckily, Saekow remembered a TED talk about a new computer zoom technology called Seadragon. He approached Professor Alvarez after class, and they started brainstorming about how a zoomable timeline would function. With the help of the Industry Alliances group on campus, they got in touch with Microsoft Research and Microsoft Live Labs, which helped produce the first prototype version of ChronoZoom.

    Today, with feedback from other Big History, humanities, and science professors around the world, we are focused on creating an all-new ChronoZoom that is a great educational tool for the classroom and research tool for academics. After creating the first version of ChronoZoom, we worked in collaboration with universities, professors, and students to make this tool easier to use in the classroom, but we definitely encourage feedback. This is why we are making the ChronoZoom beta version available to the community—hoping for significant feedback and collaboration to create a great tool that helps students, educators, and researchers really understand the history of everything.

    We’re pleased to announce that the ChronoZoom project is now 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. The foundation’s four galleries—the Research Accelerators, ASP.NET Open Source, Data, Languages and Systems Interoperability, and Innovators Galleries—support the collaborative development of software in open-source communities, yielding faster results and improved community development for organizations and research groups worldwide

    If you’re attending the NCCE Conference, I hope you’ll visit me today as I launch ChronoZoom beta in a training workshop for educators. And wherever you are, please try out the ChronoZoom beta in the weeks ahead, as we hope to get more than 500,000 users providing feedback over the next six months. If you want to help with content or development, please email us at

    Zoom away!

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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    WorldWide Telescope Takes Center Stage in Moscow


    Yan Xu introduces WorldWide Telescope to Russian astronomersOn February 9, 2012, Russian astronomers of all levels—professional, amateur, student, and teacher—congregated at Moscow’s Sternberg Astronomical Institute for WorldWide Telescope Day. Russia’s foremost astronomy institution, the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, also known as GAISH, represents the top echelons of the country’s astronomical research and science education community. GAISH scientists are involved in both fundamental and applied research and also participate in astronomy education as members of the physics faculty of Moscow State University (MSU).
    The event, a joint effort of Microsoft Research Connections, GAISH, and MSU, featured lectures and practical training devoted to Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT). The lectures covered a wide range of topics, beginning with the welcome address by A.M. Cherepashuk, the head of GAISH and one of the foremost astronomers in the Russian Academy of Sciences. Academician Cherepashuk spoke about trends in astronomical research, and his presence underscored the event’s importance in the astronomy community. Other guest speakers from GAISH discussed the role of information technology in modern astronomy research.
    Attendees view a panoramic 3-D tour of MarsI delivered a lecture that introduced the audience to the basic functions and mission of WWT. Subsequent presenters provided examples of WWT use in research and education, and reported on the latest WWT-related developments, such as Microsoft Research Layerscape. One especially crowd-pleasing training session demonstrated the power of WWT as it took the audience on a trip to some of the cosmos’ most beautiful nebulas. During a session on WWT tours, attendees donned glasses to view a panoramic 3-D tour of Mars. The audience members were treated to demos and also had the opportunity to create their own WWT tours.

    Microsoft Research Connections EMEA staff in Russia was responsible for the overall coordination of the event. Attendees came away enthused by the potential uses of WWT for both teaching and research. We’re looking forward to the next exciting WWT event!

    Yan Xu, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    No Language Left Behind


    Where your language meets the world - Microsoft Translator Hub

    Imagine the informational and cultural isolation that can result if you don’t speak one of the world’s major languages. Think about how limited your Internet experience would be. This is a reality for billions of people worldwide, who find themselves cut off linguistically from this great knowledge resource.

    A related problem affects millions of people whose primary fluency is in a major language but whose ancestral traditions arise from a different linguistic heritage. These people find themselves increasingly separated from their ancestral culture, which can only be fully appreciated through an understanding of its native tongue.

    Seeking to bring the power of computing to bear on these problems, Microsoft Research is pleased to announce the launch of Microsoft Translator Hub. We’re extremely excited by the potential of this tool to provide meaningful machine translation of lower-resourced languages and to help researchers and others build more targeted language models. The value of the Hub was very apparent to me during two recent events I hosted on opposite sides of the world, the first in California, and the second in Nepal.

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    California Dreamin’—in Hmong

    In late November 2011, Microsoft Research Connections hosted a two-day workshop on Hmong Language Preservation at California State University Fresno, during which the local Hmong community provided input on the White Hmong-English machine translator. (White Hmong, or Hmong Dao, is one of several Hmong dialects.) Hmong is one of the indigenous languages of the mountain people of Southeast Asia, thousands of whom now live in the United States, Australia, and France. As such, many of the Hmong have raised their children and grandchildren without the benefit of immersion in their traditional culture and language. Instead, they have focused on integration into the dominant language and culture of the societies in which they now live.

    In general, the second generation grows up somewhat bilingual, speaking Hmong with their parents and other elders, but using English at school and work. When they have children, they speak to them in English. This means the third generation acquires only limited fluency in their ancestral tongue by listening to their grandparents speak with their parents. And given that Hmong has only recently become a written language—within the last 60 years—many of the fluent speakers may not be literate.

    These factors have led to a critical and progressive decline in the language’s usage in Hmong communities in the United States, making language preservation a major concern for the Hmong. During the California workshop, Microsoft Research Connections, in collaboration with Professor Phong Yang, a linguist at Cal State Fresno, explored machine translation as a method to preserve the Hmong language and culture.

    The participation of the Hmong community was outstanding. Community members of all ages, from children to grandparents, worked with the Machine Translator Hub’s Reviewer UI, offering suggestions and words of encouragement. Hopes were realistic: no one expected the computer to provide a perfect translation between Hmong and English. One amused Hmong parent observed that “it speaks ‘Hmonglish,’ just like my children.” The overall reaction was extremely positive, reflecting the community’s strong desire to preserve their language and culture.

    A tangible outcome of the event, hard work by the Microsoft Translator team, and the continued efforts of the Fresno Hmong community is that Microsoft released a public version of Hmong on Bing Translator on February 21 in honor of International Mother Language Day.

    Teaching Students to Scale Language Technology Peaks in Nepal

    In Nepal, Microsoft Research Connections co-hosted a two-day "Nepali Language Preservation Workshop” in conjunction with Kathmandu University and the nonprofit organization Language Technology Kendra. The goal was to begin the process of strengthening Nepali’s position in today’s digital world, bringing it up to the level of major world languages and increasing access to non-Nepali language Internet content for monolingual Nepali speakers. These efforts expand the presence of Nepali in addition to keeping it vibrant. As a lower-resourced language with a large speaker population (more than 30 million), Nepali is an ideal candidate language for the Microsoft Translator Hub.

    David Harrison, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered languages, and I led a session for linguists and translators that focused on reviewing translation quality and providing us with valuable feedback on the reviewer interface. Approximately 1,200 sentences were translated and edited on the first day, and more on the second. Participants reported a number of bugs and suggested improvements.

    Meanwhile, in a parallel track, computer science students and educators met under the guidance of Microsoft researchers Christophe Poulain and Sundar Poudel. The purpose of this session was to teach tomorrow’s computer scientists and computer science educators how they can access the nascent Nepali translator model, being refined in the other session, through the Microsoft Translator APIs in a private workspace for automatic translation between Nepali and other languages. By training educators, we give them the tools to go back to their institutions and teach others how to develop web service translation applications, thereby growing young experts in the field of natural language processing.

    The enthusiasm and productive work of the workshop participants affirmed that Nepali was an apt choice for the workshop. As one participant observed, "If we can translate Nepali, we can communicate with the outsider world easier." Another noted that “the rural people don't understand English, so if we give them a translator, they will feel good and [find it] easy to read information on foreign-language websites."

    I firmly believe that translation systems that can engender community participation, such as Microsoft Translator Hub, can have a beneficial impact on reducing the decline of lower-resourced languages. But it takes a strong commitment by a community to make this a reality. Machine translation mimics how a human learns a new language. Like a person, the translation software needs materials to read comparatively in both languages. It has to be taught and makes mistakes, but it gets better and better as it gets more exposure to the new language (data). Building up that language data to give the system more exposure is one of the chief practical values of events such as these workshops, where the participants actually teach the computer how to speak their native language.

    Whether helping to preserve the links to an ancestral culture or working to bring a language into the digital world, Microsoft Translator Hub demonstrates Microsoft’s ongoing engagement and commitment to creating positive social change through technology.

    Take a look at the Microsoft Translator Hub website and ask for an invitation to participate.

    Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural Interactions, Microsoft Research Connections

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