TechCrunch is reporting that the project at Microsoft that makes Robert Scoble cry is indeed WorldWide Telescope, an application for viewing the cosmos. I have received confirmation from a source inside Microsoft that this is indeed the big project Scoble was talking about, and that it will be revealed February 27 at TED.
My source explains that WorldWide Telescope is a lot like Google Earth, except for the universe instead of this planet. Navigation in the software is similar to Google Earth, or more so in a way similar to Microsoft’s PhotoSynth software (which it borrows code from), panning and zooming traveling through the galaxies. My source has not played around with the software, but seen a demo of it, and he/she says that not only didn’t Scoble blow WorldWide Telescope out of proportion or overhype it, he actually underhyped it.
Sounds like some really exciting stuff. Michael Arrington has some information I hadn’t heard, including that WWT will be accessed through a downloadable application (Windows-only) allowing users “to pan around the nighttime sky and zoom as far in to any one area as the data will allow”. Microsoft is using the Hubble telescope as well as ten other planetside telescopes, and users will be able to switch to infrared and non-visible light views as well.
By the way, props to Dan Farber, who guessed this right three days ago.
Jonathan Fay gave a presentation about WWT at Table Mountain Star Party 2007 three months ago, talking about a project that grew out of a 1993 CD-Rom and began with Jim Gray and Alex Szalay’s work in 2002 to develop SkyServer.
The description of Fay’s talk:
The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) project is designed to be an extensible learning and exploration environment which integrates hyperlinked rich media narrative with a seamless multiple survey virtual sky to enable guided and unguided exploration of the universe. WWT is a collaboration between Next Media Research (Principal Researcher and group manager Curtis Wong, Principal Research Software Design Engineer Jonathan Fay and Jina Suh Research Intern), Alex Szalay at Johns Hopkins University, Alyssa Goodman at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics, and Frank Summers at Space Telescope Science Institute.
The vision for WWT began in 1993 Curtis’ production of a CD-ROM called “John Dobson’s Universe” which was never completed but featured a number of narrated tours within a virtual sky and included a talk that John Dobson recorded at Table Mountain in 1993. Curtis worked closely with Jim Gray and Alex Szalay in 2002 to develop the SkyServer Website to facilitate public access to the images and data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. SkyServer was always conceived of as the foundation towards building the World Wide Telescope. In early 2005 Curtis developed the collaborations with Harvard and STSCI and hired Jonathan Fay in late 2005 to utilize his experience in astronomical imaging and building interactive visualizations for TeraServer to architect and build the technology for WWT.
Here’s how Gray and Szalay described WWT six years ago:
The World-Wide Telescope
The World-Wide Telescope (WWT) will emerge from the world’s online astronomy data. It will have observations in all the observed spectral bands, from the best instruments back to the beginning of history. The “seeing” will always good – the Sun, the Moon, and the clouds will not create dead-time when you cannot observe. Furthermore, all this data can be cross-indexed with the online literature. Today, you can find and study all the astronomy literature online with Google™ and AstroPh. In the future you should be able to find and analyze the underlying observational data just as easily.
The World-Wide Telescope will have a democratizing effect on astronomy. Professional and amateur astronomers will have nearly equal access to the data. The major difference will be that some will have much better data analysis tools and skills than others. Often, following up on a conjecture requires a careful look at the object using an instrument like the Hubble -Space Telescope, so there will still be many projects for those with privileged access to those instruments. But, for studies that analyze the global structure of the universe, tools to mine the online data will be a wonderful telescope in their own right.
The World-Wide Telescope will also be an extraordinary tool for teaching Astronomy. It gives students at every grade level access to the world’s best telescope. It may also be a great way to teach Computational Science skills, because the data is real and well-documented, and has a strong visual component.
Almost exactly 13 months to the day after Jim Gray was lost at sea and presumably died, WorldWide Telescope will be unveiled to the world. It should be a strong and inspiring legacy for well-loved and respected scientist.