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An Infinite Canvas in Time: Visualizing the History of Everything

Publication date: August 10, 2012

ChronoZoom takes you on a visual historical journeyChronoZoom takes you on a visual historical journeyChronoZoom is a unique online tool that takes viewers on a visual historical journey that is comprised of documents, images, data, and videos—all displayed in chronological order on a vast, zoomable timeline. ChronoZoom offers unprecedented depth; it enables viewers to explore the past, starting with the Big Bang billions of years ago and up to the present day: a zoom factor of nearly 5 trillion.

Finding a Modern Solution to an Age-Old Issue

Roland Saekow, community project leader, University of California, BerkeleyRoland Saekow, community project leader, University of California, BerkeleyIn 2009, Roland Saekow, an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), had the idea for ChronoZoom while enrolled in a Big History course taught by Walter Alvarez, professor of Geology. Big History is a field of historical study that attempts to understand, through an interdisciplinary approach, the history of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity. One of the greatest challenges in teaching a Big History course is conveying and exploring the vast time scales of the past.

Alvarez had developed a series of timeline handouts, but did not have a single, comprehensive method for presenting the time scales of Big History. After class one day, Saekow approached Alvarez and suggested the use of computer zoom technology to convey vast time scales.

“There was always a really big problem: how do you convey those scales of time from human history all the way back to cosmic history?

- Walter Alvarez, professor of Geology, University of California, Berkeley

Alvarez and Saekow discussed ideas for creating a zoomable, visual, interactive timeline. Saekow proposed that it might possible to use Seadragon, a Microsoft zoom technology, to visualize time. The professor and student team produced a seven-minute video that explained both the Big History time-scale problem as well as an initial prototype—and ChronoZoom was conceived.

Bringing History to Visual Life

Soon, Alvarez and Saekow's UC Berkeley team joined forces with Microsoft Live Labs, the team that was developing the Seadragon zoom technology. The first version of ChronoZoom was a built as a giant rasterized image that zoomed smoothly and could be explored by using deep zoom technology. 

Walter Alvarez, professor of History, University of California, BerkeleyWalter Alvarez, professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

It made its debut to a standing-room only event during the 2010 UC Berkeley 97th Annual Faculty Research Lecture delivered by Alvarez.

The UC Berkeley team refined their focus to the development of an easy-to-use, database driven version that could easily incorporate new timelines and data. The new tool would be able to use a variety of content types, including video, charts, graphs, images, and text. The team also expanded its target audience to include members of the humanities and science communities, who were interested in using ChronoZoom for research and teaching.

“ChronoZoom is...built on Windows Azure, a cloud computing platform. So they don’t need to worry about being able to maintain it.

— Rane Johnson, principal research director, Microsoft Research Connections

Global Collaboration

As the project goals and strategy unfolded, the team needed a new perspective to help advance the project. They were fortunate to have the opportunity to start working with some highly skilled student developers from Lomonosov Moscow State University. Led by Sergey Berezin, an associate professor at Moscow State University, the developers joined the ChronoZoom project in the latter half of 2011.

Undergraduates and graduates from Moscow State University employed the latest web standards along with JQuery to produce a dynamic rich HTML5 experience that could function on a wide variety of browsers and devices.

ChronoZoom was built as a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Moscow State University, and Microsoft Research.ChronoZoom was built as a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Moscow State University, and Microsoft Research.Working together, the UC Berkeley and Moscow State teams produced the ChronoZoom 2.0 beta. This version harnesses the power of Windows Azure for flexibility and scalability to support a complex, zoomable canvas.

Because maintaining content in the cloud removes the limitations that organizations face with hardware storage and maintenance, "Students and the computer science departments who work on ChronoZoom can focus on making an amazing tool while we take care of everything on the backend," explains Rane Johnson, principal research director, Microsoft Research Connections.

A Brief History of Time

ChronoZoom user interfaceChronoZoom user interfaceThe ChronoZoom 2.0 beta is now available for feedback from teachers, students, and researchers. Visitors can browse through history on ChronoZoom to find information in the form of articles, images, video, sound, and other media in a rich, visual experience.

By drawing upon the latest discoveries from many different disciplines, visitors can visualize the temporal relationships between events, trends, and themes. Some of the disciplines that contribute content to ChronoZoom include biology, astronomy, geology, climatology, prehistory, archeology, anthropology, economics, natural history, and population and environmental studies.

The Future Awaits

“The first thing people usually comment with ChronoZoom is experiencing that ‘wow’ factor of zooming from humanity all the way to the 13.7 billion years of cosmos.

— Chris Engberg, undergraduate in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, UC Berkeley

With the framework of ChronoZoom established, the ChronoZoom team looks forward to opening the project up to more partners so that ChronoZoom can become a valuable teaching, learning, and research tool. The team encourages computer science researchers and students to help build the features and capabilities required for ChronoZoom to function optimally. We encourage professors, researchers, and students in the humanities and sciences to contribute content that chronicles the history of the humanities and the sciences—and that demonstrates how these fields have influenced one another.

Try it Out

Try out ChronoZoomExplore ChronoZoom and experience how this master timeline of the cosmos, Earth, life, and human experience unifies a wide variety of data and historical perspectives to help you discover unexpected relationships and historical convergences and better understand Big History.