South by Software—Microsoft’s Excellent Austin Adventure
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending South by Southwest Interactive, one of the largest conferences on emerging technology in the world. The event is held in Austin, Texas, as part of the family of South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals that also include events showcasing music, film, and education.
Our journey began last year when I was notified that my panel submission had been approved for the conference. The panel, titled “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvases,” showcased recent work by Microsoft Research and its partners to make important cultural artifacts—such as the NAMES Foundation AIDS Quilt—available on the cloud, thereby promoting access to these artifacts and data related to them across many operating systems and devices. The focus of our panel session was how cloud computing and natural user interfaces can help people tell little stories within Big Data—effectively transforming Big Data into Deep Data.
Model of the future James Webb Space Telescope on display at SXSW
Soon after the panel was approved, my colleagues on the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) team partnered with NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Space Telescope Science Institute to create SXSW Interactive exhibits around the James Webb Space Telescope, an amazing infrared telescope that will be launched in 2018. It will reside in an orbit approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where it will probe even greater depths of the universe than the Hubble Telescope has. The exhibits would include 82-inch Perceptive Pixel touch displays, a mammoth video wall, and a 1:1 scale model of the telescope itself, situated outside one of the main SXSW exhibit halls.
So it turned out that I would be going to SXSW with a large group of my favorite teammates, researchers, and university collaborators. We began planning how best to make use of this time and tell the story of the exciting work that Microsoft and our partners are doing to promote open access to scientific and humanities data. It was definitely showing promise of becoming an excellent adventure.
My first day there, I was impressed by the networking potential of this festival: the SXSW attendees were an eclectic mix of techies, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists displaying their creativity and innovative ideas. Everyone is there to pitch their idea and find investors, collaborators, and opportunities.
I am lucky to work with some of the most talented people in the world on projects to make the world a better place. On Sunday, we held our panel, and I sat with Andy van Dam, Anne Balsamo, and Ethan Watrall to discuss our work with Deep Data and Big Quilts. The session ended emotionally, as Anne and Dale MacDonald had a very special panel of the AIDS quilt brought to the stage. The panel is called “The Last One,” and it was donated with instructions that it should not be sewn into the quilt until a cure for HIV/AIDS is found. Anne expressed her hope that she might live to see this day and encouraged all in attendance to support efforts to end this global pandemic.
Anne Balsamo and her colleague, Dale MacDonald, display “The Last One,” an AIDS quilt panel that will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure for HIV/AIDS is found.
Meanwhile, the NASA tent was a hive of activity, flooded with visitors exploring the story behind one of the greatest engineering achievements of the twenty-first century. The James Webb Space Telescope is an amazing device. The surface of its mirror is so smooth that if the entire object was enlarged to the size of the state of Texas, the largest irregularity would be less than 10cm tall. There were live Skype calls to the largest clean room in the world at NASA, animated descriptions of the deployment process, and terrific interactive exhibits on WorldWide Telescope and ChronoZoom. The next night, our team took part in setting a new Guinness World Record for the largest outdoor astronomy lesson, with 526 people learning how light and color are used by astronomers to understand celestial objects.
Finally, the SXSW awards ceremony arrived. ChronoZoom was one of five finalists for the Interactive Award for educational resources. I sat with our team while actress and comedian Aisha Tyler provided animated commentary as the finalists and winners were announced. When our team was called, we were amazed, but we recovered quickly and took the stage, where my colleague, Michael Zyskowski, gave our 140-characters-or-less acceptance speech in the form of a Haiku:
Open Source, Microsoft? BAM!
Mem’ry of Lee Dirks
Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education
This was a terrific moment for Microsoft Research, but it was an even greater moment for Microsoft. Microsoft took home three SXSW Interactive awards this year, including Best of Show. The two applications (ChronoZoom and Contre Jour) are both cross-platform and work on just about any device you can imagine, including most smartphones. Microsoft is blazing the trail for interoperability and open access on so many levels. I hope that these awards help to promote the great work that our company is doing in this space and encourage other corporations to pursue similar work.
All told, SXSW was an amazing experience. It brought together so many good people doing good things, and it encouraged us to celebrate the hard work we perform every day to make dreams into realities. Austin should be commended for incubating so many talented people, not just software developers, but filmmakers, musicians, and artists, bringing them into one place to mingle, merge, and multiply their visions around the world. I feel fortunate to share this world with so many talented people.
—Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections