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Sneak peek at the virtual universe

Microsoft Research

 The galaxy M81 makes its

 appearance in a screenshot from

 the WorldWide Telescope. Click on

 the image for a larger version.

After weeks of rumblings in the blogosphere, Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope was brought out in the open for the first time today, at the annual TED conference in Monterey, Calif. The software program knits together terabytes of online data into a seamless, zoomable experience - and lets users create their own guided tours of the deep sky.

Even though the free program was demonstrated today, it's still said to be in private alpha mode, which means it could be several weeks before you can try it out for yourselves.

On one level, the WorldWide Telescope is sure to be compared with Google Sky - but the ability to build your own multimedia planetarium show just might kick things up a notch.

The program drew its first big raves a couple of weeks ago, when tech überblogger Robert Scoble said seeing the Telescope in action brought tears to his eyes. Today, Scoble provided the why behind the cry, including this reason: "I cried because I imagined all the kids, like my sons, who will be inspired by what they see. It took me back to the days when John Kennedy wanted us to go to the moon. Hint: there’s a lot more out there to explore."

I've gotten a good idea of how much is out there when it comes to the WorldWide Telescope, in part because's Web operation is based on the Microsoft campus. (Microsoft is a partner in the joint venture). But it's mostly because I love to find out about cool astronomy software, and some people are willing to tell me about it. What follows is based on the impressions of people who have seen demonstrations of the program.

Like Google Sky, the WorldWide Telescope lays out the night sky in a browserlike interface, and you can mouse and zoom your way down to the good stuff: imagery from full-sky surveys conducted by ground-based telescopes, to be sure, but also close-ups from planetary probes and space telescopes.

There's a strong "social media" component to the presentation as well. For example, you can watch and listen as astronomers tell their stories about sky highlights, while the program automatically hops from one celestial object to the next. You can jump off the virtual tour at any point, take a look around for yourself, then jump back on the tour or latch onto a different cosmic excursion.

In its finished form, the program will provide the capability to set up and share your own sight-and-sound tours - which echoes the way Google Earth users have created their own mashups of maps and satellite imagery. The idea is to make creating virtual planetarium tours as easy as slapping together a PowerPoint slide presentation.

According to the project's FAQ file, the program is based on what Microsoft is calling its Visual Experience Engine, which sounds as if it works somewhat like the Microsoft HDView technology that is starting to use in zoomable slide shows. The software downloads higher-resolution versions of the imagery over the Internet as you zoom in. Thus, a lot of the heavy lifting is done over your network bandwidth - and I'm guessing that the more bandwidth and processing power you have, the better your visual experience will be.

Microsoft is already sending out quotes from some of the people who have been developing content for the Telescope's "visualization environment," including this one from Roy Gould of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics:

"The WorldWide Telescope takes the best images from the greatest telescopes on Earth ... and in space ... and assembles them into a seamless, holistic view of the universe. This new resource will change the way we do astronomy ... the way we teach astronomy ... and, most importantly, I think it's going to change the way we see ourselves in the universe. The creators of the WorldWide Telescope have now given us a way to have a dialogue with our universe."

Scientists could theoretically use the program to compare different data sets and make discoveries - but the primary applications are likely to be for entertainment and education, at home, in the classroom and on big screens in museums and science centers.

"It really brings space to the public," Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a video clip distributed by Microsoft.

Ames Research Center is in Mountain View, Calif., which is also where Google has its headquarters. Like Google Earth and Google Sky, Microsoft plans to distribute WorldWide Telescope at no charge. But the company could well use the underlying technology for other types of immersive experiences on a pay-for-play basis.

We won't know the full capability of the WorldWide Telescope until this spring, if Microsoft holds to the schedule it's announced. That leaves plenty of time for musing: Will this be a program truly worth weeping over? Or will it look like a case of "me-too" with some extra bells and whistles, coming in the wake of Google Sky? Feel free to weigh in below with your comments, as well as your recommendations of virtual sky software and Web sites.

Update for 9:20 p.m. ET: Giving credit where credit is due, Microsoft said the WorldWide Telescope builds on work that started with computer scientist Jim Gray's work on SkyServer and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The new program has been dedicated to Gray's memory. Here's a short article by Gray and Alexander Szalay that lays out the philosophy behind the project. Curtis Wong of Microsoft Research's Next Media group plays a lead role in the WorldWide Telescope project and conducted today's demonstration at TED.

In case the screenshot I've linked up above isn't enough for you, here's another one from Microsoft Research that highlights the Andromeda Galaxy, and yet another one that focuses on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. But to be honest, none of the screenshots truly does justice to the Telescope's depths of data.

I can't let this subject go without mentioning Stellarium, an open-source astronomy program that many users say is better than Google Sky.

Update for 11 p.m. ET: Over at Sky & Telescope's Web site, Stuart Goldman says that he's had the alpha version of the software for some time. At the moment, the WorldWide Telescope "doesn't play well with the video on my work computer," he said. That's a potential downer, because the program is said to be quite graphics-intensive.