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

7/24/09Follow @wroush

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a platform for interactive learning that could obviously be used to soup up almost any kind of content. MIT’s OpenCourseware site, for example, includes the complete lecture videos for dozens of undergraduate courses at MIT, and would be a fantastic source of material for an expanded Project Tuva. I have no idea whether the MIT videos are Silverlight-friendly, and it would be a big undertaking to seed them with the appropriate extras. But that’s the sort of thing you could probably get a few undergrads to do for extra credit. Alternatively, you could crowdsource the task, Wikipedia-style. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback already,” Wong says, “and that’s what a lot of people seem to want—they’re saying ‘I want to see my stuff in there.’”

Alas, here comes the inevitable caveat: it’s not clear whether or how Project Tuva might be transformed into a general tool for educational video publishing. Bill Gates and Microsoft are modern-day Medicis; they have so much cash that they can afford to spend some on rare and remarkable productions like Project Tuva and WorldWide Telescope. (The Barnes and Leonardo CD-ROMs were also artifacts of Gates’s largesse, through Corbis, the image archive he founded in 1989.) But Microsoft is, at bottom, a very focused business organization, and Project Tuva doesn’t fit with any of the company’s existing products. It’s not that such ideas can’t be commercialized—it’s that Microsoft, as an organization, often doesn’t seem to have the breadth of mind to figure out how.

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska summed it up well in a comment on Greg’s April story about the downsizing of Microsoft’s Live Labs, which had been working on some amazingly ahead-of-their-time user-interface advances like Seadragon and Photosynth. “A drawback of Microsoft’s ‘product group’ structure,” Lazowska said, “is that if something doesn’t fit directly within the domain of a specific product group, its value may not be recognized.” I’m afraid that’s exactly what will happen to Project Tuva. In the end, it seems that the role of Wong and his colleagues at Microsoft Research is merely to propose, while the product groups dispose.

But Wong, for his part, sounds optimistic: “I’m hoping that some of these ideas will inspire the product groups to think about new markets that they might present to them,” he says. In that spirit, I’ll close, as I opened, with a quote from Feynman: “I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”

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Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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