Microsoft’s ChronoZoom: One Web Page, 13.7 Billion Years of History

3/14/12Follow @curtwoodward

One of the hardest things to figure out when you hang around Microsoft Research demos is how or when any of this amazing stuff will ever see the light of day. Hell, even Microsoft Research director Rick Rashid thinks the department’s real value is in being a stockpile of ideas, and not so much a product pipeline.

But as of today, there’s at least one more example of Microsoft R&D in the wild—and it’s got the potential to make history research a lot more interesting. Known as ChronoZoom, the project combines the best parts of advanced Web interfaces and multilayered information sources like Wikipedia into one slick package.

The thing that will grab most people right away are the visuals, and rightly so—ChronoZoom’s centerpiece is an interactive timeline that not only scrolls from left to right, but also drills down inside itself, taking the user on a deep dive that truly conveys the vastness of time and space.

At every unfolding layer within ChronoZoom, there’s content—and plenty of room for more—that helps explain what was happening at that slice of history. And it’s rich stuff, including HD videos and other multimedia offerings.

Simply put, it’s one Web page that has enough room to hold all 13.7 billion years of known history, from the Big Bang to present day.

That’s my best shot at explaining it in words, but you have to go play with it to get the full effect. Do so by visiting ChronoZoom directly (make sure your browser is up to date), and also check out this video from Microsoft Research giving some more insight into the project. As you’ll see, one of the funnest parts is zooming from the “Cosmos” level down to something on the opposite end of the scale, like human history—and then jumping back out again.

(For bonus points, especially if you haven’t seen it before, also check out the mind-blowingly awesome “Powers of Ten,” a 1977 short film from architect/artists Charles and Ray Eames.)

ChronoZoom’s mission is closely related to the “Big History” movement, an educational philosophy that weaves together subjects in history and science that have traditionally been kept separate. Specifically, ChronoZoom’s history lessons feature content from the Big History Project, a Bill Gates-funded company that has developed high school courses based on the principles of Big History.

ChronoZoom itself also has strong ties to academia: The project relied heavily on contributions from researchers and students at both UC Berkeley and Moscow State University in Russia.

ChronoZoom is being released as an open-source project through the Outercurve Foundation, the Microsoft-created open-source repository. And that’s where the wiki-inspired part of ChronoZoom’s content can come into play—in the future, more academics could be adding their own historical resources into the timeline to flesh out the history of, well, everything.

When Microsoft’s Michael Zyskowski showed me ChronoZoom at the company’s recent TechFest research show, we talked about the prospects for going even further with crowd-generated history content. It’s possible to envision a sort of verified layer of academic and expert content, with a more public, Wikipedia-esque layer of crowd-edited stuff also available.

It’s already clear that, once we get down into the little blip that is all of humanity, some of the really powerful stuff will be personal. One Berkeley student who helped work on the project, for instance, used archival materials from a real-life couple to tell the story of Japanese-American internment during World War II.

It’ll be really interesting to see if this takes off as a platform for history education. While the visuals weren’t as zippy as I’d hoped on my own MacBook tryout (they were faster on the in-house Microsoft demo machine), ChronoZoom showcases some beautiful Web technology. It also seems to be coming to life at a moment when technologists and entrepreneurs are thinking a lot in public about how they can help improve education.

Even if something like ChronoZoom is just a starting point for future educational tools, it’ll be one hell of a start—after all, it’s publicly debuting the day after Encyclopedia Britannica announced it would finally cease printing paper volumes. Maybe someone can go enter that on the timeline.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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