Lots of people are asking me questions about what made me cry at Microsoft a few weeks ago.
If I told you “a telescope” you’d make fun of me, right? Tell me I’m lame and that I don’t deserve to be a geek and that I should run away and join the circus, right?
Well, that’s what I saw.
Or, more accurately, the WorldWide Telescope.
UPDATE: the official site is now up.
Like I said, sounds lame. How could that possibly be the most fabulous thing I’ve seen Microsoft do in years? And that’s not just me talking. My friends who’ve seen it say that I actually underhyped it. That’s the first time anyone has said I underhyped something when I was trying to be so over-the-top with hype.
Like I said, it isn’t the product that’s impressive. You’ve gotta see this thing to really understand. My video will be up on Monday.
But, I’ll try to give you an idea of what made me so impressed.
Think of Google Maps or Microsoft’s Live Maps. How dragging a map around lets you see the world in a new way. Zoom in. Zoom out. You have the whole world in a window on your screen.
Now, think of the sky.
When Brian Cox, physicist at CERN, spoke at LIFT last year he told us to hold our hands out, put our thumb up and realize there are hundreds of thousands of stars in just that small patch of sky.
Now you’ve probably looked at imagery from the Hubble Telescope. So you know there are entire galaxies out there. But what are you missing?
In other words, you have no idea where in the sky those things you see in Sky and Telescope magazine are. You’re missing context.
So, back to the World Wide Telescope. You drag around the sky. There’s Mars. There’s the big dipper. There’s Betelguese. Etc. It’s just like the star party you probably attended in college.
But it has one difference between any telescope you’ve ever looked at.
You can zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.
We picked a point of light inside the big dipper. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Holy shit, it’s two galaxies colliding. It looked like a star. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.
Now the magic happened.
Curtis Wong said: “let’s switch to a different telescope and see what these two galaxies colliding are spitting out.”
He clicked a button and we saw a completely different view of the same colliding galaxies. This time we weren’t looking at visible light, but at something else. I think it might have been infrared, or maybe a look at other kinds of radiation being kicked out. He had about 10 of the world’s telescopes to look at. I forget all the names, but that detail is in the video coming on Monday.
Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Pan over to Mars. What a glorious view. You’ve never seen Mars like that through your $2,000 Celestron Telescope.
Oh, you have one of those nice Celestron telescopes with the motorized base? Click a button and your telescope points to what you’re looking at in this piece of software.
And there’s a ton more, the demo just goes on and on and on.
Some other things.
1. It’s dedicated to Jim Gray, the Microsoft Researcher who sailed out of San Francisco Bay about a year ago never to be heard from again. He started this project with a paper back in 2002.
2. It runs only on Windows. It’s coded in C#/.NET, you’ll meet the developer in our video and you’ll hear more about that then.
3. It’s free, but only in a private alpha right now. I’m not sure when it’ll be released to the public. I bet that we’ll find that out at Microsoft’s Tech Fest next week (TechCrunch and other bloggers are going to that, so Im sure we’ll hear lots more details on the other cool stuff Microsoft Research is doing).
4. There are terabytes of data, all seamlessly integrated for the first time here.
5. There are narrations and tours. I believe you can even add your own, so you can leave a little tour for your kids to see the sky in a new way.
6. Mike Arrington and Dan Farber figured it out first.
So, why cry over a telescope?
Because I just saw the world I live in, er, excuse me, the universe I live in in a new way that I never had imagined before.
I cried because I imagined all the kids, like my sons, who will be inspired by what they see. It took me back to the days when John Kennedy wanted us to go to the moon. Hint: there’s a lot more out there to explore.
I cried because I realized just how much work, money, and all that went into making these images. I never had access to them before. Certainly not in this way so I could compare them by clicking a button. As a taxpayer who’s helped pay for some of these telescopes it’s the first time I’ve seen the results of my and your, investments in our scientific research.
It’s human to look out at the sky and wonder what’s going on out there. This takes us a LOT further into our understanding of just what is.
And,, yes, that’s worth crying some inspirational tears. Thank you to Microsoft Research for inspiring me in a way that Microsoft hasn’t inspired me in years.
And, also, sorry to the teams that I caused some PR troubles for. I hope you’ll forgive me for getting a little excited. I couldn’t contain myself. It isn’t everyday that you get to see such an inspiring piece of software.