Tuesday, May 13, 2008

WorldWide Telescope - pretty, but not revolutionary

Microsoft Research has launched a public beta of the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) this week, which has generated considerable buzz in the blogosphere - mainly because über-geek blogger Robert Scoble stated that it made him cry when he saw a preview earlier this year.

I just downloaded the beta version myself and it is indeed pretty. Think of Google Earth, but looking outward at the universe rather than at our planet here. You can scroll and zoom and explore and see the night sky in much more detail than most people have ever experienced in a planetarium. It has a detailed database of astronomical objects, including stars, planets, constellations, and galaxies. You can use a search function to find any celestial object, or you can use the locator pane that points out noteworthy objects in your current field of view.

And it comes with great guided tours - slides, pictures from different wavelength images, and narration - that give you expert insights into little corners of the universe you didn't know about. And it allows you to control your actual telescope to zoom in on the same object you are viewing on your computer. And it's free. So it's a nice educational tool, no doubt.

But does it make me cry?

Hardly, if you consider that it has all been done before. For the avid hobby astronomer such features have already been available for quite a while. Starry Night Software does exactly what the WWT does, i.e. it lets you explore the night sky and provides guided tours to various astronomical events, controls your telescope, and it has far more features than the WWT. The only difference is that you have to buy Starry Night on a CD/DVD and install it on your computer, whereas you use WWT like you are using Google Earth: with a thin client viewer and all the data resides on the web.

The one thing I do like about the WWT is that any tours created in the software are, of course, stored in XML format. Microsoft hasn't yet published the specifications or schema for them, but I was able to create a short tour myself and then edited it further with our XMLSpy XML Editor.

So what is so innovative about the WWT that it warrants such a buzz? All it does is apply the thin client viewer plus cloud database approach to an astronomy application. That is certainly not revolutionary - I'd say it's not even original. Why you need a research lab to do it, is beyond me. It sure is a pretty application, but it simply doesn't deserve the hype and attention.

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