Project Tuva or Bust: How Microsoft’s Spin on Feynman Could Change the Way We Learn

7/24/09Follow @wroush

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they cried out for the same treatment. “As you can tell from Bill’s opening video, he’s really passionate about things like this that have the potential to inspire a lot of kids about science,” Wong says. “But if you watch the lectures and you don’t know anything about the particular topic, it can be a challenge, especially if you don’t recognize the names of the people Feynman is talking about.”

In the first lecture alone, these include Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, and Albert Einstein, among others. “I wanted to think about taking those same ideas that we had earlier [for the interactive CD-ROM and video projects] and putting them together with this idea for putting the Feynman lectures online,” Wong says.

That meant finding material that complemented each section of Feynman’s talks. For help with that task, Wong turned to University of Washington physicist Stephen Ellis and a group of undergraduates belonging to the UW Society of Physics Students. “We sat down with them and watched the lectures and I had them take notes of all the things that could use classification, and also where I should look on the Web for good resources that would help you as a student to understand. That formed the kernel of the ‘extras,’” Wong says.

Using Silverlight, he spread each of Feynman’s lectures out against a digital timeline. At the appropriate moments in this timeline, extras pop up on the right side of the screen—they might be photographs, links to websites or Wikipedia articles, or special text notes, penned by Ellis, that expand on some of Feynman’s points. If you click on one of the extras, the video automatically pauses while the feature opens in a pop-up window.

In the first lecture, which is all about gravity, some of the coolest extras take you to Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, another Curtis Wong production. It’s an interactive virtual planetarium with embedded multimedia tours revealing details about heavenly objects such as the M81 galaxy or the Horsehead Nebula. (See this column for all the details.) WorldWide Telescope was also built on the Silverlight platform, which means it opens up right inside the Project Tuva player. “I wanted to show the power of the kind of simulation that you can bring into the narrative, and WorldWide Telescope was the thing I had handy,” says Wong.

Another nifty feature of Project Tuva is a note-taking area on the left side of the screen where you can type your own observations about the lectures, which are then saved locally on your PC. Your notes get pegged to the timeline the same way the extras are; the next time you watch the lecture, they’ll pop up at the appropriate time. Your notes, as well as as the lecture transcript, are searchable.

The whole thing adds up to … Next Page »

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

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