When Curtis Wong was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, he knew that the Milky Way existed. But like most urban-dwellers, he’d never seen it.
“It was just this mythical thing in books,” says Wong, who is now a principal researcher at Microsoft. “It wasn’t until after high school that some friends and I drove an hour north of LA and got to see the Milky Way, and it was unbelievable. After that, I always wanted to make it possible for everybody to see it.” Which he eventually did, through a virtual planetarium program from Microsoft called the WorldWide Telescope.
It’s a long and sinuous road that connects Wong’s youthful amateur-astronomy experience to the Worldwide Telescope and then to GeoFlow, a new geospatial visualization tool in Microsoft’s widely used Excel spreadsheet program. But it’s a fascinating story, and one that throws light on Microsoft’s vision for the future of its most profitable product, the Office productivity suite.
GeoFlow, which Microsoft unveiled in preview form back in early April, is an add-in for Excel 2013 that turns spreadsheet jockeys into mapmakers. It lets them take geographic data stored in Excel—that is, any quantity associated with a latitude and longitude or street address—and display it on a 3D map from Bing Maps. From there, they can call up different representations of the data, compare it to standard charts and graphs, or build animated tours that can help convey a story about the information to other users.
Imagine flying through a 3D map of Seattle, with skyscraper-like towers representing quantities such as energy consumption at the level of neighborhoods, blocks, and individual buildings. That kind of thing is possible with GeoFlow—and it’s a far cry from the flat, 2D graphics we’ve been trained to expect from Excel.
You can find some of the same features in advanced geographic information systems (GIS) software such as ESRI’s ArcGIS. But you don’t have to be a mapping expert to use it. Just as WorldWide Telescope gives non-astronomers a chance to explore the heavens, GeoFlow gives non-specialists a chance to play around with geographic data, inside the same spreadsheet software they’re probably already using to run the financial side of their businesses.
“If you think about Excel, it’s kind of the database for everybody,” Wong says. “Geospatial visualizations is a world where [users] have wanted to go, but there hasn’t been an easy way to do it. So we are going to where the data is.”
And with the guided-tours aspect of GeoFlow—which was inspired by a similar feature in WorldWide Telescope—Microsoft may giving a preview of where Office is heading.
“Traditionally, the storytelling tool in Office has been PowerPoint,” says Kevin Fan, a Microsoft program manager for Excel. “But if you look at what GeoFlow allows you to do—explore your data in a more interactive way—that is exactly the direction we want to move Excel in. So, in a way, it’s the vanguard of what we want to provide.”
Wong, who’s been a researcher at Microsoft since 1998, says the germ of the idea for GeoFlow came to him in mid-2008, right after the release of WorldWide Telescope. But to understand the connection, it helps to rewind even further, to work that Wong did in the 1990s as an executive producer at Corbis Productions.
Corbis is an image clearinghouse originally set up by Bill Gates in 1989. To show what could be done with the Corbis image collection, Wong led the creation of a series of multimedia CD-ROMs about subjects such as the Manhattan Project and Impressionist art. Each of these CD-ROMs was multilayered: they contained a foundational layer of documents, paintings, photos, and the like, overlaid with gallery-like visual spaces and guided tours. The idea was to give users several different ways into the archival material.
“If you look at every project I’ve done, it’s the same information architecture,” Wong says. “In terms of cognition, what something is is stored in a different part of the brain from where something is. The process of visual-audio-touch interaction helps your form little data points in your brain that are then connected, and the more you interact with other data points, the more you are redefining that mental model—to the point that you reach critical mass and you are able to extract something you couldn’t know before.”
In the early 2000s Wong had the opportunity to apply those ideas to astronomy, when he began working with Microsoft database researcher Jim Gray on the idea of a “virtual observatory” that would bring together astronomy data from digital archives around the world, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. With help from Jonathan Fay, a Microsoft software architect and engineer, Gray’s original SkyServer database eventually evolved into a full-scale digital planetarium program, the WorldWide Telescope, in which zoomable pictures of astronomical objects such as galaxies and nebulae were arranged on the surface of a vast inverted globe viewable through a Web or Windows client program.
That turned out to be a great tool for both professional and amateur astronomers. But to Wong, the astronomy data was just another foundational layer. “I told Jim, ‘We should allow people to create virtual tours,’ and he thought that was a great idea,” Wong says. (Gray vanished in a presumed boating accident in 2007.)
Since the release of WorldWide Telescope in 2008, astronomers, educators, and students have used the guided tour feature to create hundreds of presentations that treat various objects in the sky as stops in a slide show. Tour authors are able to control the virtual camera’s point of view and add voiceover narration. Harvard astrophysicist Alyssa Goodman, for example, has published a tour called “Dust and Us” that visits spots like the center of our Milky Way galaxy and the Orion Nebula to explain how the clumping of interstellar dust leads to star formation.
From the beginning, the rendering engine in WorldWide Telescope had the ability to display data on the outside as well as the inside of a sphere. That meant it could be used to show planetary surfaces—including Earth’s. Wong says he spent a lot of time in 2008 and 2009 “experimenting with how you could use the engine to visualize data on the Earth…both spatially and temporally, in a way that would allow us to tell stories about it.”
And that’s what led to the collaboration behind the GeoFlow project. (By the way, Microsoft says “GeoFlow” is just a code name and that the feature might get a different name by the time it becomes an official part of Excel.) In 2010 Wong shared his experiments with a number of product groups at Microsoft, including the Excel team. As it happened, they’d already been thinking about … Next Page »
Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish.