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AIDS Quilt 2012 Interactive Digital Exhibits
AIDS Quilt 2012 Interactive Digital Exhibits

Microsoft Research Connections partnered with the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab, Brown University, University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, NAMES Project Foundation, and others to create several interactive digital exhibits that allow the public to explore the largest work of community-created folk art in the world.

Creating a Digital Patchwork Masterpiece

One of the goals of technology is to make possible experiences that were previously impossible. One of the goals of user experience design is that the actual technology fades into the background, so the only thing a person sees or experiences is the content. One of the goals of good content is to convey an important message to an audience. When a message is important enough it can inspire individuals to coordinate and collaborate in order to communicate a vision of a better future. The digital interactive experiences highlighted in this project are just one branch of an enormous community that has come together to ask an important question and encourage people around the world to help find an answer. James Wren, Topper Kain and Lei Yu, are Microsoft developers who are typically involved in creating tech solutions for various branches of the federal government. For this project they agreed to work on evenings and weekends to create a digital likeness of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

AIDS Quilt Deepzoom in Bing

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a bit larger than the handicrafts in your average Home Economics class. The quilt is composed of more than 6000 blocks, each of which has eight panels. In total it comprises more than 49,000 quilt panels. 49K isn’t a lot when you are thinking about hard drive space but at this physical scale it is mind-shattering. The quilt is estimated to weigh more than 53 tons and if it were to ever be assembled it would cover more than 1.3 million square feet. That is more than 23 acres in. In fact, it’s so big that the National Mall in Washington D.C. can’t contain the quilt in its entirety for the display going on this month. Instead, it’s being split up into three sections and displayed in shifts by an army of volunteers who unload each panel off a truck, unpack it, spread it on the ground and, at the end of the day fold and repack each section. While the physical impact of the quilt is impressive, the emotional impact is on another level entirely. Each quilt panel was made by hand by an individual or group to memorialize a friend or loved one who lost their life to AIDS. As enormous as the quilt is, it represents only a fraction of those who have died. And it is still growing. The question that James, Topper, Lei, and all the other volunteers want answered is: When will the quilt be complete? When will we sew the final panel?

The volunteers at D.C. are not the only ones working to answer this question. At Microsoft Research Connections, the project is being supported by Donald Brinkman, who oversees MSR’s digital humanities work. Donald learned about the project from Brett Bobley at the National Endowment for the Humanities and reached out to Anne Balsamo, a digital humanities specialist at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. Anne is on the board of the NAMES Project Foundation and with Julie Rhoad, the Names Project Foundation Executive Director, she came up with an idea. Using an enormous library of panel images (of varying quality) from the last 25 years, as well as a couple of data bases with information about the panels and the people they memorialize, a team of developers and researcher might be able to both bring the quilt to a much broader audience and use interactive visualizations to analyze and illuminate the history of the quilt.

Anne had begun building a touch-enabled quilt browser with her colleague at USC Dale MacDonald in collaboration with Jon Winet at the University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities, but she was running into technical challenges. Their tabletop browser didn’t run as smoothly as they wanted and the images of the quilt were too numerous to easily zoom in and out. Luckily Donald stepped in at just the right moment with a couple of key pieces of Microsoft technology that made their job much easier. He donated four Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense devices to the project (two will remain with the NAMES Foundation and two will remain with the research labs) and he suggested that they broaden the collaboration to include Andy van Dam’s graphics team at Brown University. Brown has been pushing the boundaries of pen and touch interactions for years and one of their recent prototypes, Large Art Display on Surface (LADS) provided the right foundation on which to build the NAMES Table, an interactive display that allows visitors to view the names memorialized in the quilt and physically explore the images as a single, stitched panorama. As a result, you can see the entire expanse of the quilt as if perched atop the Washington Monument, and then zoom down to see the details of an individual panel.

This would not be possible if it weren’t for the D.C. developers, who used their expertise with Bing Maps, Azure, and other technologies to push the individual images up into the cloud, stitch them into a gigantic virtual quilt more than 24 gigabytes in size, then deconstruct the resulting image into a multi-scale, high-resolution image pyramid using Deep Zoom technology. You can view the raw quilt images here and once you have you will be one of the first people in the world to have seen the quilt in its entirety.

Based on her earlier work in the creation of interactive timelines, Anne had also been creating an interactive history of AIDS and the Quilt; Donald Brinkman put Anne’s team in contact the ChronoZoom team at Berkeley who volunteered to help the Annenberg team. Together they created this amazing ChronoZoom interactive timeline that chronicles the history of AIDS and includes Deep Zoom panoramas of the quilt at various stages in its creation.

Donald describes the outcome as “visceral,” and Anne used the words “poetic” and “profound,'” noting that people who have viewed the quilt with the DeepZoom browser have broken out in tears, gasps and, occasionally, laughter. This loosely connected group of volunteer developers and researchers have done something truly profound. They have come together with their knowledge of some of the most advanced technology on the planet and used it to create an experience whose ultimate purpose is to transport you to a place beyond that technology – a place where you can ask yourself if you will live to see the day when the final quilt panel is sewn into place. I suggest you visit the links above, ask yourself that question, and consider how you might be able to help.

If you want to learn more about what Microsoft Research is doing to find a cure for HIV, you can visit  Next@Microsoft blog describing how MSR researcher David Heckerman is using spam filtering technology to help find a vaccine for HIV.