Gazing Through Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope

5/30/08Follow @wroush

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a guided-tour function—which is the second thing that really impressed me about the program. These tours can be as simple as a series of stops in the sky—the seven most interesting spiral galaxies, for example—or as elaborate as PowerPoint slide shows, complete with music, narration, titles, and superimposed images. About 40 different tours are available from WorldWide Telescope’s top-level menu, and more are being created and uploaded every day, thanks to the program’s built-in authoring tools.

It seems churlish to criticize something as marvelous as WorldWide Telescope. But as long as Microsoft Research is giving stuff away for free, I might as well register a few requests. First, the Next Media group really ought to reach out to the creative community by building a Mac version of the program. This may be out of the question, considering that the nuts and bolts of the interface are based on a proprietary Microsoft platform called the Visual Experience Engine. But the more guided tours users create, the more people will want to access them, and it will be sad if Mac users are cut off from this bounty.

The nebula Pismis 24, as seen in Microsoft’s WorldWide TelescopeThere’s also a need for stronger online communities around WorldWide Telescope—places where users can easily upload and share the tours they’ve created, the same way Google Earth users can share KML layers containing their own tours and images or 3-D modelers can contribute models they’ve built using SketchUp to Google’s 3-D Warehouse. The program’s top-level menu includes a “Community” tab, but there aren’t many actual communities yet, and those that do exist, such as Astronomy magazine’s community, don’t seem to include any user-generated tours. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before WorldWide Telescope users form their own online clearinghouses.

By the way, don’t be put off by the system requirements for WorldWide Telescope. Microsoft says that for the best experience, you should have a Vista machine with a 2-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a 3D graphics card with 256 megabytes of RAM. I’m sure the program would run like a flash on a system like that. But I’ve had little trouble running it on my 4-year-old Dell Windows XP laptop, which has a 1.5-gigahertz Pentium M processor, a measly 256 megabytes of RAM, and an Nvidia GEForce video card with only 64 megabytes of RAM.

To me, the most astonishing thing about WorldWide Telescope and its spiritual cousin, Google Earth, is that they let average Internet users play with databases far larger and more detailed than anything professional astronomers, earth scientists, or spymasters could access as recently as a decade ago. Not only that, but the data is all free, and the programs’ builders encourage users to make new things with it and add their own layers of information. It’s only a matter of time until some 13-year-old uses WorldWide Telescope to produce her own version of Cosmos. I’ll be waiting.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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