Microsoft WorldWide Telescope Redux

More information trickles out about Jonathan Fay’s and Curtis Wong’s upcoming Microsoft WorldWide Telescope. First, a blog post by CNET’s Ina Fried puts a name to the new projection system (“Toast”) and dispels any hope there might be a Mac version down the line:

I wondered why Fay was less than enthusiastic about prospects for a native Mac version. He said the type of programming needed to make the software a reality can be done vastly faster using Microsoft’s .Net and C# programming tools.

To make it truly cross-platform, he said, “I’d basically be looking at three to four years of development.” Plus, he quipped, “It doesn’t hurt if a few people buy Windows.”

Then, you can watch the now-infamous video where Robert Scoble gets a demo of the technology (Via Virtual Earth/Live Maps Blog). Although Scoble manages to ask the weirdest questions, the video still gives us end-bloggers much more to go on:-) So, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

Good: Sure enough, “Toast” renders the polar regions beautifully, and that’s a big advantage over Google Sky. Switching between imagery databases (for different wavelengths or telescopes) is near-instant. And Curtis Wong also shows off a gigapixel panorama of Yosemite National Park using the Toast engine. It looks like QuickTimeVR on steroids. Finally, the tour and voice-over recording feature looks wonderful — and imagine how you could use it on Earthly panoramas! For example, egyptologists could take a 360-degree panorama of a burial room covered in hieroglyphics and start narrating the texts as you pan across it… Or take a panorama of the interior of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and have an art historian start showing off its highlights…

Bad: Though not bad per sé, none of the previews to date show any hint that it will be possible for us end-users to add overlays and annotations to the sky canvas (rather than screen overlays, which the demo shows you can), and then share them via open formats like KML. There is something to be said for having Microsoft serve views for every wavelength and telescope instead of expecting third parties to build the overlays, but that first feature need not preclude the latter.

Ugly: Jonathan Fay’s answer above shows that WWT is first and foremost a technology showcase for .Net and C# rather than a universal sky browser. That makes a certain amount of sense if you ask how or whether Microsoft might want to monetize WWT: Google Sky rides on the back of a monetizable Google Earth; why should Microsoft spend $$$ on development and servers for WWT? Well, it is great advertising for the Microsoft brand and also good corporate citizenship, but WWT is likely to remain a cost center rather than a profit center for a while yet.

Some more notes: Neither Google Sky nor WWT are comparable taxonomically to Celestia. Celestia is a different beast, a 3D model of the universe that you can roam around in, much more like the industrial strength UniView shown off att ISDE5 in June 2007. Google Sky and WWT let you zoom in on a 360-degree panorama of the universe taken from just one perspective: Earth. It would certainly be nice to have a 360-degree panorama of the sky as a backdrop when roaming around the solar system, and to have Earth and Mars and the Moon rendered as accurate virtual globes inside this application, but until now neither Google nor Microsoft have betrayed any sign of building something like it. Quite possibly, that’s because there are few ads online for martian property at the moment:-)

Free-associating some more: WWT’s ability to control your own actual telescope so that it moves to the same spot that you’re seeing on the screen raises some interesting possibilities down the line. If you add a CCD to the end of the telescope (as some amateur astronomers do), then why not broadcast your sessions live to WWT via the web as coordinate-tagged video that people can find and subscribe to…. Or perhaps you’ll be able to save the logs of your observing sessions, and then marry them to the photos you took through your telescope, much as we now marry GPS tracks with the photos we take on trips to automatically georeference them…

4 thoughts on “Microsoft WorldWide Telescope Redux”

  1. The earliest versions of Keyhole’s software included a textured 3D moon and point-rendered stars, btw, as well as some basic day/night cycle. The moon could even be spun like the earth by grabbing it.

    But navigating around the surface of a sphere with a 2D input device is a much more constrained problem than navigating the 3D universe — much easier to make a UI that is intuitive for the most number of people.

    That’s the main reason to not include the Moon and Mars as “places you can go” (without swapping base maps).

  2. Instead of comparing Google Sky/WWT with Celestia, compare it with Stellarium, which is a planetarium application much like Google Sky and WWT.

    Stellarium lets you view outer space from the point of view of Earth and practically any other major celestial body in the Solar System. And all solar system bodies are in true 3D. So this may address your roaming around the solar system with a 2D starfield as a backdrop. But unlike Celestia, you cannot freely roam in solar system space, you are tied to observe the sky on a solar system body.

  3. I love Stellarium, but see that as being yet another class of application as well. Sure it overlaps with Google Earth in that you can use both to find the positions of the planets and the view of your sky at a specific spot and time, but Stellarium is above all a drawn map, while Google Sky is above all a photographic repository of the sky. Also, Google Sky focuses on allowing user generated content and sharing it.

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