As I was preparing to travel to Washington, D.C., for the 2012 exhibition of the AIDS Quilt and the International AIDS Conference, it occurred to me that this journey began a little less than a year ago, in nearly the same spot. I first learned about the AIDS Quilt project from Brett Bobley, CIO of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH offices are just a short walk from the National Mall, where I am spending three days with a small group of volunteers unpacking, unfolding, arranging, displaying, refolding, and repacking the more than 6,000 blocks that comprise the AIDS Quilt. If it weren’t for Brett, I might never have made this journey, learned this story, and played a small part in raising awareness of a global pandemic.
I went to visit Brett last year to discuss the recently launched Digging into Data Challenge. Digging into Data is a program of grants to explore ways that technology can be used to illuminate the vast digital repositories that universities, libraries, and museums have established over the last few decades. Over lunch, I described to Brett the many technologies that Microsoft Research has developed to help people tell stories with data, including ChronoZoom, Rich Interactive Narratives, Large Art Display on the Surface, Silverlight PivotViewer, Layerscape, and Bing Maps. Brett, in turn, described many terrific NEH projects, but one in particular stuck in my head: a startup grant awarded to create an Interactive Tabletop Device for Humanities Exhibitions.
For the next part of the story, we need to travel more than 2,500 miles to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Labs, where I met with researcher Anne Balsamo. It was she who won the grant for the tabletop, and it was her idea to partner with the NAMES Project Foundation to create digital interactive exhibits to support the AIDS Quilt exhibitions of 2012.
Anne spoke of the challenges she faced. There are more than 55 GB of quilt images taken over a span of 25 years. Each image is a block of eight quilt panels sewn together. That amounts to more than 49,000 individual quilt panels, each with associated metadata. In order to make her exhibit come to life, Anne needed to stitch these images together as well as cut them up—in the cloud. Anne also needed a way to smoothly zoom and explore the immense tapestry of the virtually stitched quilt. The entire quilt measures approximately 1.3 million square feet—around 24 acres—and browsing across it is not a simple matter. Finally, Anne wondered if we could do more than create a single static quilt. Could we dynamically re-stitch the quilt into different configurations based on the metadata?
As we talked, I realized that Microsoft Research had all of the technology pieces Anne needed—five of them, to be precise. To cut and stitch the virtual quilt, we could use Windows Azure to create cloud data stores and run stitch/unstitch scripts across multiple cores. To zoom and explore the quilt, we could use a combination of Silverlight Deep Zoom paired with both Large Art Display on Surface, for a high-fidelity experience, and Bing Maps, for a cross-platform experience. Finally, to dynamically reconfigure the quilt, we could use PivotViewer.
But this is easier said than done. Anne had a very small budget and hiring a vendor to do just one of these tasks would probably consume all of it. How could we fund such a massive endeavor with only a few short months until the exhibition? The answer: we wouldn’t.
Here at Microsoft, we have an initiative called the Garage, which brings together employees from all over the world who are interested in collaborating on side projects. I reached out to the Garage and asked if anyone would like to volunteer to help with the quilt project. Within hours, I had close to a dozen volunteers, including three developers who jumped right in and began the work of stitching the quilt and creating prototypes. Within a week, they had a proof of concept up and running in Bing Maps, enabling you to be one of the first people in the world to view the quilt in its entirety.
Still we needed more help. We needed teams to create the interactive exhibitions that would illuminate the stories of those whose lives have been lost to AIDS. We called upon the University of Iowa and Brown University to help create these exhibits. We provided them with four Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense devices—large, interactive-touch tabletops that allow people to touch the virtual quilt, explore its story, and share its contents. These groups created the AIDS Quilt Touch application and the NAMES table, an interactive display that allows visitors to view the names memorialized in the quilt and physically explore the images as a single, stitched panorama.
In late June, the AIDS Quilt was packed into trucks and shipped from the NAMES Project Foundation headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. The quilt was displayed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 27 to July 1 and again July 4 to July 8, where an estimated 1.5 million people viewed it. The quilt is again on display on the National Mall July 21 to 25, covering the entire mall once a day over three consecutive days. On the fourth day, we will display a single panel—a special panel called “the last one,” which will not be sewn into the quilt until a cure is found. On that day, we will ask the question: “When will we be able to say that the quilt is complete—that no one will ever die from this disease again?” I hope to see that day, and thanks to a distributed group of developers and researchers across the United States, we are able to bring the quilt to your desktop so that you can ponder that question and perhaps help find the answer.
—Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections