The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments

Sabbatical at Google Helps Faculty Member Explore Research Ideas

Vis Center faculty member Dr. Brent Seales is currently on sabbatical working at Google’s Cultural Institute. He is providing us with a first hand account of the development of Google’s new on-line exhibits of important historical events.

Dr. Seales’ update from Paris, France:

The Google Cultural Institute went live recently with a set of digital exhibits under the theme of “The Fall of the Iron Curtain.”

Why now?  The 23rd anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989 was recently celebrated.  Google’s official blog explains more:

http://googlepolicyeurope.blogspot.be/2012/11/marking-fall-of-iron-curtain.html

The tight cycle between last month’s launch of 42 new exhibits – over a completely new technical platform supporting a user experience within a web browser – and this week’s launch made for an exciting month of intense work for the engineering team.  Beyond launching the themed content in many different languages, the team implemented a channel construct to group exhibits by theme.  Sounds simple and looks/feels absolutely right for the user.  Turns out to be a lot of work on the engineering side to settle some long-term issues now so that the collections can scale up over the next months.

My position as visiting scientist with the Cultural Institute gives me a great view of the process and helps me plan for how research ideas might fit into the development cycles into 2013 and beyond.  Some questions I and others have been asking:  how can the user experience be made more and more compelling?  What kind of tools can be developed that might deliver new information from such a large corpus of information?  Can the process of becoming a partner, adding content, and building exhibits be democratized and scaled up to become available to everyone and anyone?  How can more content be freed to become available for search, exploration, and involvement in story-telling?

I know from experience that there are many fears about releasing content freely and openly.  Yet the stories that many digital assets can portray are powerful and deserve to be heard.  The tearing down of the Berlin Wall twenty three years ago today was an unexpected and miraculous event that opened up a new era of freedom in Germany and Eastern Europe.  It reminds me today of the technical walls that are coming down – barriers of time and space that are lessened through technology, and historical barriers set up around releasing content for study, reflection, enjoyment – for the human experience.

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Google’s Cultural Institute Launches New Way to Visualize History

Vis Center faculty member Dr. Brent Seales is currently on sabbatical working at Google’s Cultural Institute. He has provided us with a first hand account of the development of Google’s new on-line exhibit of important historical events.

Dr. Seales’ update from Paris, France:

For the past year, the engineering team at the Google Cultural Institute has been working steadfastly and intensely to prepare for today:  the new launch of 42 online exhibitions at http://google.com/culturalinstitute.  As Visiting Scientist with the engineering team I have had a first-hand view of the process and a chance to get to know the engineers and some of the technology behind the code that is driving the launch.

When you visit the digital exhibitions and work your way through the stories being told over the “assets” (images, video, text, tags) I hope you are gently and artfully pulled in to the appeal of those exhibits and the powerful stories they tell.  When you come up for air after some exploration, remember that behind those stories is an enormous engineering effort, striving to hide, so that an experience can be created that transcends the nuts and bolts of coding.

And trust me, there are plenty of moving parts – when you are hosting digital exhibits over an archive of more than six million images, supporting thousands of queries per second, being viewed on myriad devices and browsers – you have to work very hard to get it right.  This team understands that.

When it comes to interdisciplinary collaboration this launch has really led with passion and creativity.  From the excellent exhibits, the content partners, the user experience experts, to the engineering specialists, there has been enormous effort in working toward the very challenging goal of creating an impressive user experience over a huge digital repository.

Take a look at the exhibits at the Google Cultural Institute platform and let me know what you think.  I hope you enjoy the time you spend looking at it, and maybe it will inspire some of your own ideas about stories that need to be told – maybe some that only you can tell best.

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