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Night at the Museum—sans Ben Stiller

November 14, 2011 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

Jonathan Fay and I recently visited the California Academy of Sciences, the world-class natural history museum and research center located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Our goals were to connect in person with Academy researchers and to help prepare the Academy’s Morrison Planetarium for an Academy NightLife event. This particular NightLife featured Microsoft technology—including Windows Mobile—and a planetarium show that demonstrated the astronomy capabilities of Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope. I was particularly interested in talking with Academy researchers about my work with the new and more local phase of Worldwide Telescope, which uses recently developed tools and capabilities to create earth-science data visualizations and tell stories—supported by the high-resolution imagery of Bing maps.

Hippocampus reidi, the Atlantic seahorse whose phylogenetic tree we are re-growing in WWT

Hippocampus reidi, the Atlantic seahorse whose phylogenetic tree we are re-growing in WWT

I spoke at some length with several of the Academy’s researchers about the potential of WorldWide Telescope (WWT) as an earth-science research tool, and about how to visualize interesting and often complex datasets. As one consequence, I am now working on a proof-of-concept example for them that uses WWT to render the phylogenetic tree for a particular genus of seahorse as a space-time diagram in relation to the Earth. The idea is to illustrate the genetic distance between different species in relation to spatial separations between their native habitats. By extension, such diagrams could span orders, families, and even classes of living organisms.

We also spoke with the Academy researchers about broader data problems: specifically, the potential for using what we call the Environmental Information Framework—developed within our Earth, Energy, and Environment group—to address information-management challenges. We discussed different approaches to managing and publishing data and how Microsoft technologies (research tools, products, and services) might be applied to help.

Another fun development from this visit: by using GeoSynth, the standalone version of Microsoft Photosynth, I generated a digital representation of the museum’s iconic Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex) from a set of photographs I took. I then created a Worldwide Telescope narrative tour that relocated the T. rex outside to a nearby baseball park. (I have her playing center field.) The tour features several of the source photographs as well; so we are exploring a combination of different types of data to tell the story.

To further expand on this new idea of employing WWT for more than exploring stars and galaxies: I use WWT to create visualizations of robotic submarine missions, clouds of organic molecules culled from Arctic rivers, twisted and knotted magnetic fields around the sun, distributions of soil carbon across the United States, biodiversity of sharks throughout the world’s oceans, and lots more. The complexity that all these datasets have in common makes it difficult to place them on a chart; to get them into WWT, all I need is some sort of coordinate basis—be it geographical, geometrical or parametric—and off we go!

Digital representation of Tyrannosaurus rex with photo inset of actual skeleton
Digital representation of Tyrannosaurus rex with photo inset of actual skeleton

To me, the common denominator between seahorses, dinosaurs, stars, planets, and carbon molecules is our fascination with learning about the natural world and the enjoyment of sharing our understanding with one another. Scientists spend years learning the details of their specialization, learning which questions to ask next. With the emergence of new data-generating tools to answer these questions, we see the corresponding emergence of the “drowning in data” syndrome, a malady we find rampant across all specializations and domains. Well, computers got us into this fix, and so we are working on ways to use computers to get us out.

As a member of the Microsoft Research Connections team, I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to research scientists and say, essentially, “How can we help?” Given a few minutes to show them what we have in the works, the ensuing conversations are enjoyable, and often lead to productive collaborations. We hope that those collaborations, in turn, lead to solutions that will be usable by others in the earth- and life-sciences. But, as a T. rex playing center field might suggest: one step at a time…so I’m looking forward to our ongoing conversations with the Academy.

—Rob Fatland, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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