WorldWide Telescope and Seamless Astronomy
The Seamless Astronomy project, led by Alyssa Goodman at Harvard University, aims to apply new technologies, as they are imagined or developed, to the research environment that astronomy researchers find themselves in every day. Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT) provides a fantastic set of linkages between data archives, data visualization, and online resources, including the refereed literature. By collaborating closely with other leaders of the NASA/NSF-sponsored Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO) program and researchers at Microsoft, participants in the Seamless Astronomy effort are working toward a “seamless” research environment in which researchers use their favorite tools to retrieve data, which is then used to conduct literature searches. Researchers then use other tools in that environment to analyze, model, and simulate with the data in a freeform effort. The goal is for researchers to be able to focus on their research without being concerned about the various programs and services they use to help them with their work.
WorldWide Telescope is a free, interactive virtual learning environment that combines terabytes of high-resolution images from ground- and space-based telescopes, astronomical data, and guided tours, enabling users to experience a seamless exploration of the universe. “Anybody who's looked up at the sky has wondered about the nature of what they are seeing," says Curtis Wong, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research who worked to bring Turing Award winner Jim Gray's WWT vision to reality. "I think it's a fundamental thing for people to be curious about the universe."
WWT provides a unique opportunity to see and hear guided tours about the Universe from astronomers and educators within the context of the sky. Students are able to pause a tour to get more in-depth information about any object from multiple sources on the web, examine other multispectral imagery of that object, or jump to a different tour that is related to that object. WWT makes this unprecedented level of data and imagery easy to access so that users of all ages can explore the Universe.
As Goodman described, the WWT technology, though still evolving, is just one example of new ways to interact with the large datasets that are accumulated by projects that are affiliated with the research labs, such as the Dataverse, Seamless Astronomy, and High Dimensional Data Visualization and Interaction. While in the past, data has typically been displayed in charts and graphs; in recent years, technology has enabled the collection of such large volumes of data that traditional display methods are inadequate. By displaying the data in three dimensions (with time as a fourth) or by interacting with it graphically, WWT enables researchers to not only better visualize and explain what they’ve found but also understand it better themselves, Goodman observes. “WWT is also one of the most extensive and powerful astronomical data environments that are accessible to the public for education,” she notes.
Through this research effort, Microsoft has gained valuable insight into geo-spatial visualization technologies. We envision the data deluge extending beyond the sciences and into the business world. With information feeds and large volumes of streaming data, visualization techniques like the WWT will be valuable not only for research but also for the broader community of knowledge workers and data analysts.