WorldWide Telescope: The Universe at Your Fingertips
By Rob Knies
May 12, 2008 8:45 PM PT

Imagine the universe. Vast, beautiful, mysterious, it has inspired wonder for millennia—wonder and humility. A clear, twinkling nighttime sky can summon reflections on life, our role in it, its very meaning. A gaze into the heavens might be the closest we can come to a visualization of infinity.

Imagine no more. With the public release of WorldWide Telescope, it’s time to explore.

WorldWide Telescope, a public beta from Microsoft Research, enables anybody with a Web connection to browse through the universe, to explore distant galaxies, to dance among the stars. A state-of-the-art combination of software and Web 2.0 services, WorldWide Telescope offers terabytes of high-resolution images, astronomical data, and guided tours that bring the universe to your fingertips.

Lots of computer applications offer to add value to your life. WorldWide Telescope, available for download, delivers the sun, the moon, and the stars—for free.

WorldWide Telescope view of Messier 81
This view of Messier 81 is among the wonders to behold for users of the WorldWide Telescope.

“It is stunning,” says Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. “It is beautiful. It is just so smooth. Everything is so crisp and clean and simple and easy. It’s incredibly well-coded, and the science of it is also correct, down to the minute details.”

Szalay is just one of a multitude of scientists who have raved about WorldWide Telescope, but nobody appreciates the power of the technology more than Curtis Wong, principal researcher and head of Microsoft Research Redmond’s Next Media Research group. Wong, who, along with colleague Jonathan Fay, has been the driving force in bringing the project to reality, is distinctly aware of the allure that space offers.

“Anybody who’s looked up at the sky has wondered about the nature of what they are seeing,” says Wong, an amateur astronomer since high school. “I think it’s a fundamental thing for people to be curious about the universe.”

That curiosity now can be satisfied in ways heretofore impossible. Images from the world’s foremost ground- and space-based telescopes are presented in a media-rich, immersive, seamless environment that brings a virtual observatory directly to your desktop. Pan across the night sky in search of your favorite constellation. Zoom toward distant galaxies for an up-close view. It’s like being in a spaceship cockpit, traveling at warp speed on a thrill ride through the cosmos.

WorldWide Telescope is a collaboration between Microsoft Research and the technological, scientific, and academic communities, which have supplied images and have provided invaluable feedback. The public beta has been eagerly anticipated event; this, indeed, is the work that made influential tech blogger Robert Scoble shed a tear of joy.

KIDS AND SCIENCE

WorldWide Telescope also represents a teaching platform, an unprecedented opportunity to engage children—and children at heart—in miracles of science.

Wong gives credit for catalyzing the work that produced WorldWide Telescope to colleague and Turing Award winner Jim Gray, a database pioneer who went missing at sea on a sailing trip in January 2007.

“It wasn’t his database brilliance that made it happen,” Wong writes in a paper entitled Building the WorldWide Telescope. “It was his generosity in sharing credit, inspiring, nurturing, and connecting people that made it possible for the pieces to come into place.

“Without Jim Gray’s work with Alex Szalay on SkyServer and their ongoing support and encouragement, the software that is named in their honor would not exist today.”

In September 2001, Science Magazine published a paper by Gray and Szalay entitled The World-Wide Telescope that postulated that all astronomy data and literature would soon be available online, making the concept of a virtual observatory viable. That vision culminated in the current public release.

Szalay had been involved in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an effort to map a large portion of the sky, since 1992.

“I’m a cosmologist,” Szalay says. “I work on the distribution of the galaxies: What spectrums do the galaxies form in the universe, and how can we relate that to the Big Bang? It’s a statistical study, and it became very clear that unless the data from Sloan was properly organized, it would not be able to help.”

A few years later, he met Gray, who had been building the online database TerraServer-USA, a compendium of maps and aerial photographs that served as a direct precursor to current-day satellite-imagery mapping sites such as Windows Live Local.

“I met Jim in ’96,” Szalay recalls. “It really changed how we approached the whole problem. Jim was working on TerraServer at the time. There were a lot of parallels, because we could present the celestial data in a similar way.”

SkyServer went live in the summer of 2001. Around that time, Gray gave a talk at Microsoft called Databases Meet Astronomy.

“It was a revelation to me,” Wong says. “He talked about how astronomy was moving from an observational science to a computational science and how the Internet was going to be the world’s best virtual observatory for science and education.

“Even more exciting was his call to action: ‘If you are a vis-person: We need you (and we know it).’

Wong, a master of visualization techniques, didn’t need much encouragement. He had built a concept prototype that zoomed into areas of the sky as early as 1986, and in 1993, he had developed a project to produce an interactive CD-ROM about the universe. The CD-ROM never saw the light of day, but Wong remained intrigued.

A KEY ENGAGEMENT

“Shortly after his talk,” Wong recalls, “I sent him a PowerPoint presentation called SkyServer Virtual Telescope: An Extensible Rich Media Learning + the World’s Largest Telescope to get him thinking about someday letting me work to extend SkyServer.

Orion Nebula
The great Orion Nebula.

“Jim’s work with Alex was about bringing in sophisticated database technologies that allowed them to do the kind of queries that astronomers wanted to do. Before they had a good database structure, the kind of queries they wanted to use would take them hours to days to weeks. After Jim was done, they could be done in real time in a matter of seconds—minutes at most. That was the fundamental contribution Jim made with the SkyServer images, along with Alex, and their idea of making the astronomical images available to the public was the beginning of enabling access to the content needed to build my idea of a virtual universe.”

In the meantime, and from a completely different direction, Fay was getting involved in a parallel effort.

“I was working as a development manager on Microsoft HomeAdvisor,” says Fay, a principal research software-design engineer, “and TerraServer was looking for a permanent home, someplace on a product team to utilize the functionality. Of course, real estate is location, location, location. We could create crosslinks and find houses in neighborhoods and integrate some of that functionality.

“I got to working with Tom Barclay of Jim Gray’s organization. I was thinking, ‘This is cool, but what can we do to add more features?’ At one point, Tom asked me: ‘I’ve got this digital-elevation-model data from the U.S. Geological Survey that they’d like me to load on TerraServer. Can you think of anything we could do with it?’ ”

Fay, an avid amateur astronomer, designed an Earth viewer that could apply textures and digital elevations to a virtual globe. He also experimented with integrating it with a Web service. It soon became apparent that the work was out of scope for HomeAdvisor, so he decided to pursue the work on his own.

“I started thinking, ‘What if I flip it inside out, and then start to texture-map the sky onto this?’ ”

By 2003, the first data release of SkyServer had proven a success, and Gray was looking for help.

“Jim asked if I would help them redesign the Web site for the next release,” Wong recalls. “I definitely wanted to still be involved with him on SkyServer, so a designer and I created the layout, look, and feel for the site in a few days and sent it to Alex.”

Wong found himself increasingly captivated by the potential for extending SkyServer into a story-telling framework that could enthrall the masses, which all stemmed from his time in Hollywood.

LESSONS FROM HOLLYWOOD

“I was a producer for the Criterion Collection in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he says, “which was the first effort to take feature films and transfer them digitally in letterbox and the first to interview directors and stars and to put together supplementary material on disk to help you understand how movies are made. I spent a lot of time working with directors in Hollywood, and that gave me great insights into the nature of storytelling.”

Wong moved into interactive media, developing critically acclaimed CD-ROMs, enhanced digital television, and award-winning broadband, interactive Web sites. In 1998, he joined Microsoft Research.

“These are the kind of projects I really enjoy,” he says. “WorldWide Telescope is another example, bringing together all those things I’ve done in my career to help kids get inspired about science. That’s what we try to do: create innovative technologies for Microsoft that are inspirational and create value for the public.”

WorldWide Telescope features guided tours from astronomers and educators, but users also can create their own guided tours of the universe. The tours look like seamless video with narration and music but are totally interactive. You can pause a tour at any time and explore an object, get more information, or see what it looks like in different wavelengths from different telescopes. You then can return to the guided tour when you choose. When the tour is over, you can rate it, and WorldWide Telescope suggests related tours that you can see with a single click.

“We wanted not only to enable a seamless exploration,” he says, “but also the ability for people to create and share stories. People have been making up stories about the sky since the beginning of time, but all those stories are lost. There was no real way of capturing them. Now, with WorldWide Telescope, we have an opportunity for people in countries around the world to capture those stories and share them with others. That’s really exciting, for cultural preservation as well for the opportunity to share those stories broadly and learn from other people.”

In early 2005, Gray and Szalay encouraged Wong to give a talk about that vision during a workshop called The Visualization of Astrophysical Data: Bringing Together Science, Art and Education at the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

“Alex was our spiritual leader,” Wong smiles. “He was always the person who encouraged me to meet with other astronomers. He encouraged me to go to this visualization conference with a bunch of astrophysicists. He said, ‘They think you should give the opening talk at this conference.’ I thought it would be really intimidating, talking about something so simple to such a technical audience.

“But I gave the talk, and he was right. Many came up to me and said, ‘We love this idea of bringing together stories within this environment. Alyssa Goodman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was particularly supportive and said: ‘You should do it. And if you do, we want to help.’ Alex was responsible for that.”

Szalay wasn’t surprised.

“Curtis is a pretty unique individual,” Szalay says. “He combines programming skills and artistic talent, and he’s also an amateur astronomer. We started talking, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to take this much more visual experience and turn it almost into a game?’ ”

WELCOME ABOARD

In 2006, Wong was looking for a developer and hired Fay into his Next Media team to work on a network-display platform. But in the back of Wong’s mind, he also was looking for someone who could help him eventually build his Universe project.

Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula.

“Jonathan is a rock-star developer,” Wong says. “He has deep, deep knowledge of both astronomy and the technology of imaging and rendering and modeling. He had built his own image-rendering engine, stuff he’d been thinking about for a long time. As a developer, he has a broad range of understanding, from Web services and rich media to astronomy knowledge. It would take five people with different skills to make somebody like Jonathan.”

The pair had the network-display project to complete, so work on their Universe project, as it was then called, didn’t begin in earnest until the fall of 2006. But Fay did manage to squeeze in an interim step.

“I created a demo version for Jim Gray of using my viewer to visualize Sloan Digital Sky Survey data,” Fay says. “He got really excited about it and started sending it to friends.”

Wong remembers the moment well.

“After seeing it,” he recalls, “Jim would e-mail people within the company with comments like: ‘Guys this is a KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF demo. You should see it.’ ”

That fall, they got down to business. Initially, they focused on preparing a demo of the Universe project for TechFest, Microsoft Research’s annual demo fair for Microsoft employees, held in early March.

“In early 2007, things were moving,” Wong says. “On Jan. 18, I sent Jim a project update on new details for the project, information architecture, functionality, and content. He was super-excited about the new vision for the project: ‘Curtis, this is exciting news, GREAT!!’ He suggested people I should talk to and said he’d be glad to facilitate the start of those discussions.”

He didn’t get the chance. On Jan. 28, while sailing to the Farallon Islands, west of San Francisco, to scatter his mother’s ashes, Gray’s 40-foot yacht Tenacious was reported missing. He has not been seen since.

“We were preparing the demo of the Universe project,” Wong says, “and there was still no word of what had happened to Jim. We had heard that the project was going to be included in [Microsoft Research Senior Vice President] Rick Rashid’s keynote for the opening of TechFest, and Jonathan and I decided to rename the project to honor our missing friend and colleague.”

The new name, in reference to the 7-year-old paper by Gray and Szalay: the WorldWide Telescope.

After the TechFest 2007 demo, Fay talked with scientists at the nation’s leading astronomical centers: Caltech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Adler Planetarium.

SHADOWING ASTROPHYSICISTS

“We started embedding ourselves with the scientists,” Fay says, “getting feedback on how they did their work. I talked enough of their language to find out what they needed and how to build something tailored for astronomy, bringing computer science to their astronomical science and astrophysics.

“While other people have tried to grab data from astronomers and put it on the Web without understanding the field, we’ve taken the time to do it right.”

The feedback they’ve received from the scientific community proves it.

“Part of the reason scientists were excited about WorldWide Telescope in the beginning,” Wong says, “is that, for the first time, we were bringing together the vision for what they always hoped that online telescopes might be, this ability to seamlessly move between multiple wavelengths, between multiple surveys, to be able to instantly access information. They didn’t know what exactly what they were seeking, but when they saw it, they said, ‘That’s it!’ It’s a Eureka moment for a lot of them.’

Wong credits Microsoft Research, Rashid, and Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, for making such moments possible and supporting the project from the beginning.

“Microsoft Research,” Fay states, “is this wonderful place where you can come in with ideas, and you can collaborate with people to make them happen. Essentially the sky is the limit―well, not even that is the limit anymore.”

Adds Wong: “The goal of the WorldWide Telescope is to inspire people to create and share their knowledge about the universe with people everywhere. We wanted to make that process of exploration and discovery to be an effortless and wonderful experience that you return to again and again.”

Did they reach that lofty goal? Consider Benjamin, 6, of Toronto, who has supplied his own guided, narrated tour using WorldWide Telescope.

“This tool,” Fay says, “has allowed him to explore space with the same data used by professional astronomers in a way that no one could do it before―and allowed him to turn around and share his enthusiasm with other people. When my wife saw his tour, she said, ‘Honey, this is what it’s all about.’

“Hearing the joy in that kid’s voice … You’re making a difference in the passion of people, helping them understand the unbelievable awe of the universe. There’s nothing that beats that.”

Roy Gould, Harvard astrophysicist, put it another way in February in Monterey, Calif., during a sneak preview of WorldWide Telescope at the TED Conference.

“Less than a year from now,” Gould said, “the world is going to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, which marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first glimpse of the night sky through a telescope.

“In a few months, the world is also going to celebrate the launch of a new invention from Microsoft Research which I think is going to have as profound an impact on the way we view the universe as Galileo did four centuries ago.”

Imagine that.

WorldWide Telescope logo