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Microsoft Launches WorldWide Telescope

I just spent an hour playing with Microsoft’s just-released WorldWide Telescope. At first glance, you may dismiss this is as just another space simulator like Starry Night, Stellarium, Celestia, or Google Earth. However, I think it will stand on its own as a unique and extraordinary offering. 

WWT allows you to surf around the galaxy, seamlessly viewing stitched images from our civilization’s best telescopes. Panning and zooming around the galaxy is exceptionally fluid — faster and more immersive than other offerings I’ve seen. The technology behind this is Microsoft’s new high-performance “Visual Experience Engine.”

As one not ordinarily impressed by Microsoft products, I have to say that I really like WWT. The navigation controls are easy to use. The imagery is incredible. As you’re sailing along, the thumbnails along the bottom of the screen instantly update to show you what’s in the neighborhood. You can change views on the fly to look at galaxies, constellations, and other formations at different wavelengths. Overall, you get a sense of where you are in the universe better than other tools I’ve used. One other feature that stands out: slick multimedia guided tours from experts and enthusiasts — and you can create your own tour, too.

I’m always happy to see a new, free astronomy tool for the public. This is certainly a great addition. The only bad news is that it’s Windows-only.

I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to test this package out given the minimum system requirements to run WWT on your Mac:

– Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista® (recommended) with BootCamp
– Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.2 GHz or faster) processor recommended
– 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended
– NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-MB SDRAM or recommended
– HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS® Extended or HFS Plus) and 10 GB of available hard disk space
– 1440 x 900 or higher-resolution monitor

I don’t have Windows on BootCamp, but I do have VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta. My Mac isn’t quite 2.2 GHz. But I decided to try it out anyway. After some wrangling, I got it to work. Here’s what I’m running:

– MS XP Home Edition SP2 on VMWare Fusion
– 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz/2MB RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.2
– VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta (Settings: 2 virtual processors, 1120 MB RAM, Accelerated 3D graphics enabled)

This worked well for me, with a few caveats: I experienced video and audio stutters when clicking on an object for ‘more information’ or when starting up a tour. I also found the tours played back much more smoothly (with better image quality) after I let them play through once, and then played them again. I also had to reboot after I was finished running the application through VMWare — my Mac was quite sluggish afterwards. Not bad trade-offs, all things considered. One note: I tried cranking up the alloted RAM for my virtual Windows installation all the way up to 1830MB (VMWare’s recommended max for 2GB RAM), but this did not work. I experienced severe sluggishness, probably due to memory swapping. It worked fine once I turned the RAM back to 1120MB.

I would run BootCamp, but the version of Windows I own (Home Edition) is not compatible…and I don’t want to buy a newer version of Windows. If you’re in this camp (and your Mac is as good or better than mine), this is a working alternative if you want to try out WWT. It’s worth a look. If you run Windows on BootCamp, definitely give it a try.