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

7/24/09Follow @wroush

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way—by rote or something,” physicist Richard Feynman once said. “Their knowledge is so fragile!”

Maybe Feynman’s brain was big enough to simply “learn by understanding”—sucking in and comprehending complex realities in a single glance. But what I think he actually meant was that people should learn by exploring and investigating, rather than just memorizing. Only then would their knowledge be useful and durable.

What makes Microsoft Research’s new Project Tuva website so wonderful is not just that it puts some of Feynman’s most famous physics lectures online, but that it invites viewers to explore the subject matter in exactly the way Feynman would have recommended. The Caltech scientist was famous in part for for his lucid way of explaining things like gravity and quantum mechanics—so the lectures certainly stand on their own as educational set-pieces. But the transcripts, note-taking tools, and multimedia “extras” that now show up alongside the videos make the material even more entertaining, accessible, and, well, explorable.

Project Tuva was unveiled last week. It’s named after the central Asian country Feynman famously and somewhat quixotically wanted to visit before he died. (He never got permission from the Soviet Union, of which it was then a part, as his friend Ralph Leighton chronicled in his 1991 book Tuva or Bust!) The site uses Microsoft’s Silverlight software, a Web-based multimedia player similar to Adobe’s Flash platform, to showcase a series of lectures that Feynman gave at Cornell University in 1964. The lectures were filmed by the BBC for broadcast in the United Kingdom, and weren’t available to Web viewers until Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, a longtime Feynman admirer, purchased the rights and asked Microsoft Research to find a way to host digital versions online.

Project Tuva screen shot“I said we could host them, but we could also do something much more interesting with it,” says Curtis Wong, who leads a small division of Microsoft Research called the Next Media Research group. I’ve known Wong for years and I make a point of following his work, because he’s always got some great new idea about how to take a cultural resource and increase its value through multimedia technology.

For the concepts behind Project Tuva, Wong told me by phone this week, he reached back to three projects he led in the mid-1990s. The first was an interactive tour, published on CD-ROM, of the Barnes Foundation’s collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings outside Philadelphia. The second was another CD-ROM about Leonardo da Vinci, built around a digital facsimile of one of Leonardo’s notebooks, the Codex Leicester, which also happens to be owned by Bill Gates. (See this May 2008 column for more on those two projects.) The third was an interactive video documentary, developed as a demonstration for PBS but never aired, in which the program’s closed-captioning information was interspersed with hyperlinks that led to related articles in Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia.

Each project represented a step in the development of what Wong calls his information learning model for interactive media; it’s also been called the “contextual pyramid” or “ECR,” for engagement, context, and reference. It’s a simple idea: first, you hook someone—whether they’re using a CD-ROM, watching a video, or visiting a website or a museum—with a story or an object that produces an immediate emotional impact. Then, at the very moment they’re most engaged and curious, you offer them context that broadens their understanding. Finally, you provide a deep reference layer, for the people who get so intrigued that they want to know a lot more.

I’d love to explain all the lovingly crafted ways in which the Barnes and Leonardo CD-ROMs and the PBS demo implemented this model, but it would take too long. Jump back to 2008 or so: as soon as Wong found out about Bill Gates’ quest to put the Feynman lectures online, he realized that 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 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 a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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