Two New Ways to Explore the Virtual Universe, in Vivid 3-D
New York Times, May 13, 2008
By STEVE LOHR
The skies may be the next frontier in travel, yet not even the wealthiest space tourist can zoom out to, say, the Crab Nebula, the Trapezium Cluster or Eta Carinae, a star 100 times more massive than the Sun and 7,500 light-years away.
But those galactic destinations and thousands of others can now be toured and explored at the controls of a computer mouse, with the constellations, stars and space dust displayed in vivid detail and animated imagery across the screen. The project, the WorldWide Telescope, is the culmination of years of work by researchers at Microsoft, and the Web site and free downloadable software are available starting on Tuesday, at http://www.WorldWideTelescope.org.
There are many online astronomy sites, but astronomers say the Microsoft entry sets a new standard in three-dimensional representation of vast amounts data plucked from space telescopes, the ease of navigation, the visual experience and features like guided tours narrated by experts.
“Exploring the virtual universe is incredibly smooth and seamless like a top-of-the-line computer game, but also the science is correct,” said Alexander Szalay, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins. “No sacrifices have been made. It just feels as if you are in it.”
The WorldWide Telescope project spans astronomy, education and computing. Educators hope its rich images, animation and design for self-navigation will help entice computer-gaming young people into astronomy and science in general. The space service, astronomers say, could also become valuable in scientific discovery, especially with a professional version being developed with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Like many fields of science, astronomy has become digitized and data rich in recent years, making it an ideal proving ground for advanced computing techniques in data mining, visualization and searching.
So it is scarcely surprising that the other major company with an ambitious astronomy service online is Google. The Internet search giant first layered astronomical data and images onto Google Earth last August.
The switch to astronomy in Google Sky amounts to looking out into space instead of down on Earth. Two months ago, Google introduced a Web-based version of Google Sky, layering space images on its searchable map service.
Microsoft and Google are spirited competitors and antagonists in the rough-and-tumble commercial markets of Internet search and software. Yet in online astronomy, both sides proclaim mutual respect and say their sole rivalry is in scientific discovery and public education. They say they have no plans to sell advertising on the astronomy sites.
Scientists and educators applaud the interest and investment by the two.
“It’s really encouraging that both Microsoft and Google are there, pushing these powerful tools for science education forward,” said Daniel Atkins, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure, which focuses on using new technology in learning and research.
There may be no space war between Microsoft and Google, but their offerings reflect their different cultures. The WorldWide Telescope results from careful planning and lengthy development in a research division. It has the richer graphics and it created special software to present the images of spherical space objects with less polar distortion. WorldWide Telescope requires downloading a hefty piece of software, and it runs only on Microsoft Windows.
Google Sky started as a Google “20 percent” project, in which engineers can spend time on anything they choose. Google Earth, where Google Sky began, requires a software download, but its Web-based version, which came out in March, does not. The Google culture encourages engineers to put new things onto the Internet quickly and keep improving them, a philosophy geared to constant evolution instead of finished products.
Despite differences, the companies share motivations. Lior Ron, Google Sky product manager, said the astronomy focus “says a lot about the interests of the people in both companies.” At Google, Mr. Ron, 31, is one of a group of astronomy enthusiasts. He built his own telescope as a teenager and went to astronomy camps in his native Israel. He said he almost joined private space industry last year instead of Google.
A personal fascination in astronomy has also energized work at Microsoft. Jonathan Fay, 42, the lead software engineer on the project, has built an observatory, with a dome eight feet in diameter, in his backyard in suburban Seattle.
The inspiration for the WorldWide Telescope, and much of the early work, came from Jim Gray, a renowned computer scientist who disappeared last year while sailing alone off northern California. Mr. Gray had long been intrigued by the computing challenges of presenting map and satellite images online. His project to show aerial map images of the world, TerraServer, went up in June 1998, a few months before Google was founded. Mr. Gray then worked for years with astronomers on the concept he presented in Science in September 2001, “The World-wide Telescope.” Mr. Szalay was co-author.
Mr. Gray’s vision was largely about making the flood of astronomical data accessible and usable for scientists. The project began to take on its current look and design in fall 2006, when Curtis Wong started working on it full time. Mr. Wong, another amateur astronomer, heads a new media research group at Microsoft, which he joined in 1998. He is the creator of award-winning multimedia CD-ROMs on subjects like the Barnes art collection, Leonardo da Vinci and the making of the atomic bomb.
When he came to the astronomy project, Mr. Wong recalled telling Mr. Gray, “This is great, but let’s bring all this data and make it available, accessible and engaging to the public.”
A conversation with Mr. Wong, 54, is different from most around the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., which is mainly populated by engineers, marketers and business managers. Mr. Wong speaks of the WorldWide Telescope’s allowing citizen explorers to make and post virtual tours. One tour on the site is by a 6-year-old boy from Toronto. “What we’re starting with is just a foundation,” Mr. Wong said. “When it really gets interesting is when more and more stories populate the WorldWide Telescope.”
Young people today are used to sharing stories, on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere. Educators hope that the WorldWide Telescope can entice them to take an interest in astronomy. “Science has a bad rap because it is seen as a dry accumulation of facts,” said Roy R. Gould, a science education expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But this is a visually beautiful environment where you can explore, create and share.”