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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

    Bringing the heavens into the schoolhouse

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    In the five years since Microsoft Research initially launched the WorldWide Telescope (WWT), the product’s many features have been put to a variety of uses. Today in Chongqing, China, we saw yet another first for WorldWide Telescope: the unveiling of the first WWT-driven planetarium in China. The 8-meter dome installation is at the Shixinlu primary school and is powered by six high-resolution projectors. 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 dome.

    The first WWT-driven planetarium in China was unveiled at the Shixinlu primary school in Chongqing.
    The first WWT-driven planetarium in China was unveiled at the Shixinlu primary school in Chongqing on October 23.

    I represented the WorldWide Telescope team at the grand unveiling of the dome, and as I did so, I was struck by the impact our small research project has had around the world. Even more so, I was in awe of the vision of Dr. Chenzhou Cui from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who saw the potential of teaching and inspiring students via a planetarium placed directly in the school and who collaborated with Microsoft Research Asia to implement this vision via WorldWide Telescope. Dr. Cui and Mrs. Kailiang Song, the director of the school, worked tirelessly to get the installation built and running in six months and to provide a great environment for WWT. And above all, it is great to see the potential for many more students to gain a better understanding of astronomy by being immersed in the stars.

    Dan Fay represented the WorldWide Telescope team at the dome's unveiling.
    Representing the WorldWide Telescope team at the dome's unveiling, Fay was awed by the vision of Dr. Chenzhou Cui from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who recognized the educational potential of WorldWide Telescope.

    The ability to use WorldWide Telescope in a multi-machine and multi-projector setup to display on planetarium domes is one of the features included in the Windows desktop client. The WWT client is freely available at www.worldwidetelescope.org.

    Dan Fay, Director of Earth, Energy, and Environment; Microsoft Research Connections

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    Climate Prediction Leverages Home Computers

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    A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and so, apparently, is an idle computer. On November 18, scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) will begin harnessing the idle time of thousands of personal computers to study climate modeling and the resulting weather effects on the Pacific Northwest and California. This project illustrates the power of "citizen scientists," in this case, the thousands of individuals whose personal computers will be leveraged during idle times. By lashing together the computing power of these privately owned PCs, the OSU team will create a digital network with the computational chops of a supercomputer.

    The OSU participation in this worldwide initiative, under the leadership of Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, will study the reliability of various climate simulation models in the western United States. Microsoft Research provided primary funding for this initiative, with additional support coming from the Bureau of Land Management, the California Energy Commission, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The work at OSU will join that already underway in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Since the project's inception in 2003, hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists have donated their spare computer processing power to run global climate change models. During idle times, the personal computers collect data on regional climate information, including temperature, winds, and humidity, which is then compiled and fed into climate model simulations.

    Experiments in the OSU-led initiative include predicting regional weather events-including droughts, floods, and temperature extremes-during the 2020s and 2030s, and forecasting the possible climate impact if global temperatures rise two, three, or four degrees by the end of the century.

    Surface temperature in the global model - you can watch this progressing as your model runs.

    Surface temperature in the global model - you can watch this progressing as your model runs.

    Mote notes that the rationale behind these climate modeling studies is elegantly simple. "In less than two months, we can run 40,000 different year-long climate simulation models with our network of volunteers. A dedicated supercomputer, during that time, could simulate a couple hundred years worth of data."

    "It's exciting that both climate modeling and computer technology have advanced to the point that people at home can contribute to the effort to study climate change," he added.

    Individuals in the western United States who wish to donate their computer's spare processing power are encouraged to visit www.climateprediction.net/weatherathome, where they can register to have the climate model application downloaded. Much like a screensaver, it will run only when your computer is idle.

    Dan Fay, director of the External Research division of Microsoft Research

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    On Helium and Chocolate

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    Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

    We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

    Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

    Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

    The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
    thanks to our scientist collaborators.

    To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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