Posted by Kerry Godes
Senior Manager, Worldwide Marketing and Operations

In addition to covering big data’s impact worldwide, last week’s 2012 Faculty Summit also explored how modern technology can work to help raise greater awareness about social issues such as the impact of AIDS and HIV. The NAMES Project Foundation first began creating The AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987, which is today comprised of more than 48,000 panels that commemorate the lives of those people who have died of AIDS, and act as a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic worldwide. The largest piece of community-created folk art ever made, the quilt weighs approximately 54 tons and would stretch across 1.3 million square feet (approximately 24 acres) if every panel were attached.

Microsoft Research partnered with the University of Southern California (USC), Brown University and NAMES to create the quilt’s virtual counterpart. But they envision this as just a first step. Because the code used for the virtual quilt is open source - as are many of the technologies it is built on - NAMES or any developer with an interest can continue to build the project out further. According to lead researcher Anne Balsamo of USC, the virtual quilt is drawing more people to “the story of the quilt, from the larger story about how big it is to the most intimate story about the people the panels are about.”

You can take your own digital tour of the quilt, courtesy of DeepZoom technology in Bing, by clicking here. Creators estimate if you were to view every individual panel for just one minute each, it would take more than 33 days to go through them all. In addition to the digitized quilt, Microsoft Research and various partner teams have also developed a number of interactive exhibits that use Microsoft technology and co-created projects – such as open source project ChronoZoom – to bring the power of the quilt to even more people worldwide. 

We spoke with Balsamo and Microsoft Research’s Donald Brinkman about the project:

Can you give some background on the AIDS Quilt 2012 Digital Experience Project?
Anne: The project can be broken down into three parts. The first is an interactive timeline of the AIDS Quilt and the history of the disease using ChronoZoom. For that, we collaborated with Microsoft Research, UC Berkeley and the University of Moscow. The second is the touch table interactive browser that allows people to view the quilt digitally with Microsoft PixelSense. For that, we worked with Microsoft Research, volunteer developers through Microsoft Research Connections and developers at Brown University. The third piece is a mobile Web app created in collaboration with a team from the University of Iowa.

How did the project come about?
Anne: Two former colleagues and I got the idea for an interactive experience around the AIDS Quilt in the early 2000s when we were working at Xerox Parc. For a long time we couldn’t find funding. Eventually, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided early startup money for us to build a prototype of the interactive browser. I was then introduced to Donald, and from that prototype, we started discussing how the idea could be supported by things under development at Microsoft Research like PixelSense and ChronoZoom. This was in April of 2012, so the dots only got connected very recently. We showed the project for the first time on June 27th at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, so we went from a prototype to something that could be displayed in a public setting in about eight weeks.

What was your goal in creating the Digital Quilt?
Anne: One of things I’ve been interested in for long time was how the AIDS Quilt is continually fading into obscurity. That was often the headline during each anniversary. It was always about how AIDS was retreating from the public consciousness and being conquered in the U.S. People don’t understand that worldwide, AIDS is still an incredible scourge and is on the rise in a lot of places. The quilt was a kind of emblem for the activist energy that I thought was important to keep AIDS on the public agenda. I was interested in how we bring the quilt into the 21st Century and make it useful, vital and real to people who grew up after the early days of AIDS and are interested in culture through interactive media.

What has the reaction to this project been like so far?
Anne: The reaction has been amazing. When people at the Smithsonian Festival used it, they would start looking at the quilt using DeepZoom, maybe panning across the images. You could see an understanding dawn on them about how big this is. Then they would zoom to an individual panel where they could see name information. People were drawn into the story of the quilt, from the larger story about how big it is to the most intimate story about the people the panels are about.

We’ve had people break into tears when they’d find a panel they submitted but hadn’t seen in 25 years. They’d take digital photos and send it to family members. It’s amazing to create a digital experience that enables this kind of engagement. And with the mobile web app, AIDS Quilt Touch, anyone with Web access can get access to these images and search through them.

What has been the technical process to digitize something that is so large and contains so many different details?
Anne: The NAMES Project Foundation has been the steward of the quilt for 25 years. As the panels come in, they get stitched into eight-panel blocks. The foundation would take images of each block. Over 25 years, the images moved from being captured on analog cameras to early digital cameras to today’s cameras. We had 6,000 blocks representing 48,000 panels that were dramatically different in terms of resolution. We took that database to the Microsoft development team and said “What can we do to create a zoom-able experience from this?”

Donald: When we heard what they had, I sent emails looking for people with Windows Azure experience and found volunteer developers. We uploaded the files into an Azure cloud, then did post- processing to clean up and standardize them. One of the developers created a script that stitched the images together into an 80GB digital file that was the equivalent of 1.3 million square feet. We created a Bing Maps image pyramid, which is very similar to a DeepZoom image pyramid. This creates something that is only 1.3 times the size of the original image, but allows you to create seamless movement in and out of the image and optimize it for delivery over the Internet. So when people zoom in, they are dynamically pulling images from the Azure cloud.

Why did you select Microsoft as a partner to build it out?
Anne: There are not a lot of companies out there that have as wide of an imagination as Microsoft when it comes to how technologies actually work in the world and meet up with people in the world. Microsoft helped us bring this concept to reality by linking this interactive exhibit to all types of touch screen devices, including smart phones, to make this quilt accessible to millions online.

What’s next for this project?
Donald: Right now, the Web-based experience isn’t as full as what you can do on the Microsoft PixelSense tables because this was done so quickly. We’re donating two PixelSense tables to the NAMES Foundation, so the touch table version can continue to be shown at venues across the country. The code and ChronoZoom are both open source, so the NAMES Project Foundation and others can continue to extend it.

What other projects would you like to undertake – or would you like to see other people undertake - using these technologies?
Anne: One thing that’s interesting is that I’m talking to people at the government organization responsible for managing brick and mortar memorials about how to incorporate digital experiences. They realize you can’t devote real estate to every good cause. They’re thinking about creating a brick and mortar space that might be a location for temporary memorials. Imagine a place that has a panel of the AIDS Quilt hanging, but what’s on display permanently is a digital experience using an interactive wall.

Donald: I manage our digital humanities efforts within Microsoft Research. It’s these high profile engagements that will help people understand how to use technology to do more than just share baby pictures or drive commerce. We can raise awareness of social issues and empower people to change for the better. In terms of future development, each tool we used here is an open source platform for interactive storytelling. They could be used by art museums, libraries, or archives. Creating something like this shows how technology can be used to illuminate art or create social good – or in this case, both.

For more on the story behind this collaboration, visit the Microsoft Research Connections blog or Next at Microsoft.