Curtis Wong

Curtis Wong

Does technology have judgment? Not necessarily, but Curtis Wong, manager of Next Media Research for Microsoft Corporation, is convinced that new technologies can present information in ways that make it easier to move from surface understanding to engaged learning.



What is Next Media Research?

We are a small group of people at Microsoft that looks at the future of digital media and interactive television; everything from television to broadband to things that maybe you haven’t seen yet. I think a lot about how different kinds of technology can be used to deliver information and entertainment that people want.

Would you say the definition of media is changing?

The things that we traditionally think of as media, or “the media,” are changing, but the kinds of things we are using them for—information and entertainment— will be the same. What will change is how we get it and how it might appear to us.

Would you give us a little peek into the future?

I work in a research lab that tries a lot of different things, and it is unclear how many of these things will ever see the light of day. I can talk about a future that we are working on, but there is no guarantee at all that it will ever be the real future.

Okay, let’s speculate.

One example is the architecture of information, what I call the contextual pyramid. Information today comes in a pyramid with three general layers from top to bottom which are 1) Engagement, 2) Context, and 3) Reference. A good information source hooks you in with 1), broadens your understanding with 2) and then provides you with source materials with 3). If we use news as an example, the top of the pyramid representing Engagement is CNN’s Headline News which has lots of short 15 second stories but little in the way of depth. If you want more about a specific story, you could try to find more Context from Newshour with Jim Lehrer. For even more information about that specific story, you might go to the Internet for the excellent Newshour website which has related stories and links to other deeper Reference sources.

We think that when people will be watching the news in the future, they will be able to see something like “headline news,” but if they are interested in a particular story they will be able to drill down deeper and get greater context or reference sources on demand.

Isn’t the Internet already providing that?

In a very crude way–but there isn’t a link between the Internet and television. One of the things that we have built is a news browser that looks at what is going on in the news while you’re watching it. Then, using a natural language engine, it figures out what the news story is about and simultaneously retrieves deeper related stories about that particular story.

So what you can get on the Internet today will be coming through your TV?

It’s really a question of how you deliver digital information. We also built something that works from a TV-PC, which is a TV running on a PC, where you can automatically link to deeper information. The key to all of this is the intelligence of the box it is running on.

What kinds of educational applications are there for systems like these?

A lot of educational materials I have seen are very reference-like in nature but not the best way to learn something if you don’t already know about the subject since the top two layers of the information pyramid are missing. The first question you should ask is, “Why should anyone care about this?” You need to answer that question quickly and succinctly and make it relevant, while at the same time making it general enough so that people will also care to go deeper in the subject. It’s a question of constantly keeping that level of engagement to encourage people to explore.

My work is about using technology (as transparently as possible) to deliver content. It’s about building the technologies to enable the seamless delivery of the information pyramid to allow people, regardless of what they already know, to be become engaged in a subject and go as deep as they want.

Can broadband broadcasting improve television?

You are talking about two different things. When I think about television I think about the nature of the content itself. Whether it’s actually broadcast over the air or whether it’s broadband over the Internet, the quality of television needs to get better.

Is broadband going to make the delivery of television better? It’s already starting to happen. PBS Online is broadcasting a number of shows over the Web. There is a Nova documentary about the human genome project that is broken up into 5-10 minute chapters. You can watch a single chapter of interest or watch the whole show. This makes it much more practical for use in the classroom.

I am working on a project with the PBS station WGBH in Boston on a documentary called The Commanding Heights that will air nationally on television in April 2002. The film is about the influence of economic policy (state controlled economies vs. market driven economies) on the evolution of political and social culture over the past 80 years.

What we are trying to do is take the film and deliver it over broadband to the PC with related contextual enhancements and closely couple it with the narrowband website. The contextual enhancements will consist of sidebar stories, time maps showing changes in political economies, and profiles of significant events such as currency devaluations and their effect on inflation and historical events in that part of the world. As chapters of the documentary are playing, links to related materials will be displayed on the screen enabling you to pause the show and explore and then pick up where you left off in the show. You can watch it on TV as a regular TV show, or watch it on your PC in broadband. I think in this form it will be much more useful to the student wanting to explore specific topics in depth as well as being more useful to the teacher in the classroom to play a single 5-10 minute chapter for discussion.

Television is the top layer that tells the story that engages people and begins to set up the context. Right now television, PBS in particular, has Web markers on the TV screen which are links to further information on the Web, the bottom layer of our information pyramid.

What we are working on is that contextual middle layer, so if, for example, the show talks about the impact of price controls, you’ll probably be seeing some kind of simulation map that will allow you to get in there and explore and play with the simulations to try and understand the complexities and interrelationships that affect economic policy.

What types of convergences do you see five or six years down the road?

A lot of people talk about digital convergence with both media and devices. That is happening quite a bit today with devices as things will get cheaper and smaller so it makes sense to combine some of them to improve utility. But other things don’t really make sense to bring together.

One example of early media convergence was WebTV which has tended to be much less important as the performance/cost of PC’s has improved to eliminate the perceived benefits of combining the Internet with television. Although interactive television has been in testing in various forms over the past 20 years, it is still unclear if people really want it. Digital television has had great promise as the ultimate convergence medium at its introduction but consumers are still not willing to pay for the higher costs of digital TV’s.

In 5 years I believe broadband video and personal video recorders (PVR’s) that store broadcast on a hard drive (Replay/Tivo/Ultimate TV) will be the most popular ways that people watch most of their television media at their convenience.

How might these changes impact education?

It is always a challenge for technology to be simple enough, affordable and reliable enough to be used in education. The first time it comes out it’s really complicated—kind of cool, but hard to use. But I think a lot of the things that we are talking about will be really, really useful for teachers in the classroom. Right now, it takes a lot of unnecessary work for a teacher to be able to program a VCR and get a particular program. PVR’s will have much more intelligence to be able to search for and store appropriate programs that will be useful in the classroom.

What do you think the classroom of the next decade might look like?

When I worked in education 20 years ago, I used to feel that schools were like the third-world of technology—they get all the hand-me-downs, old technology. Fortunately that has changed a lot, but the traditional structure of the classroom has not changed a great deal. And I don’t expect for it to change a lot over the next ten years, either.

If you look at how classrooms are laid out today, you’ve got rows of students and you’ve got the teacher up there telling them how you do certain things. That all came out of the industrial revolution, where memorizing tasks, discipline and structure were the keys to success. Back then you learned how to work on a factory assembly line and that was the same job you had for life. Nowadays, especially working with new technologies, it is not really about memorizing anything, because whatever you are going to learn will be obsolete in five years and it’s entirely possible that the technology for the job you may be doing hasn’t been invented yet. Students today will have to learn how to continuously learn.

I used to get really excited about a subject called the Open School/Vivarium project in Los Angeles in the 80’s funded by Apple Computer. I would think, “Wow! This is the future, when every kid will have a computer and work in groups towards an overall goal.” I think they were ahead of their time in terms of the social structure in the classroom. The students worked in pods, and they worked on individual projects and were expected to be self directed. The teacher was sort of a facilitator/mentor working with the different teams, and the student/teacher ratio was very good. I’m disappointed that this model is still not the norm today.

Fortunately I think schools have progressed a lot since I was in education. Teachers are much more involved in teaching kids how to use resources and be creative and work in teams and all the things that are pretty relevant for today in terms of the professional workplace.

Even though I work for a technology firm as a former teacher I know that technology will always bee a tool and never a substitute for the classroom teacher. The best technology can take advantage of the contextual pyramid to engage students and enable access to context and reference information but it will never take the place of the inspiration, leadership and example that a great teacher can bring to the classroom.

With that in mind I think the classroom of the next decade students and teachers will be much more literate in using and authoring media to communicate, share and collaborate in their exploration for group solutions to real world problems. Computing power, simulation and visualization technologies will progress to enable teachers and students to create immersive environments where they will be able to practice and learn from building solutions to problems that we could only begin to image today. Pervasive high bandwidth will enable greater and more interesting kinds of collaborations between schools and other institutions. All of these possibilities may make it an interesting and exciting time to be a teacher.

Could you describe the scope of Microsoft’s Research division?

It’s a pretty large operation, with about 400 people spread across research labs in China, England and the Bay Area. There are people doing research in everything from computer graphics to mathematical theory encryption to vision-based research. It encompasses a whole variety of disciplines.

I think Microsoft and a couple of other labs are the last big industrial research labs where people can explore a lot of different things. Some have closed down recently, and others have scaled back. It is really great to work in an organization like this, because there are a lot of amazing people that work here. Many of them are technology pioneers such as Jim Blinn or Turner Whitted in computer graphics or Gary Starkweather who invented the laser printer.

Can you tell us about some of the major influences early in your career?

I worked for the Voyager Company about a decade ago and I think that had a profound influence on much of my work today. Voyager was a pioneer in new media being the first to create so many forms of media we take for granted today.

Can you give us some examples?

If you look at movies on DVD today, they are transferred digitally in letterbox often with director’s commentaries and with supplemental materials on the making of the movie. Well, all of those things were done first at Voyager 11 years ago. Another example is the first significant multimedia CD-ROM was Beethoven’s 9th symphony and that was created at Voyager then as well. We also did the first electronic books publishing Jurassic Park as the first electronic edition over a decade ago. It was an exciting and inspiring place to be a part of creating those things and we always had celebrities, Nobel Prize winners, famous directors, you name it.

Tell us about some projects you did there and why they were important?

I think producing the laserdiscs was hugely influential because I had the opportunity to work with major Hollywood film directors to create the definitive edition of making their greatest work. It was like the best film school you could ever hope for with 1 on 1 instruction teachers like John Sturges, Ray Harryhausen, Peter Bogdanovich, and many others telling you the secrets of storytelling in film. It helped me so much in understanding the elements of storytelling and with my work in CD-ROM, was a huge influence in my later work.

How did that affect your work when you went to Corbis?

When I came to Corbis the first project was to do a CD-ROM on the Barnes Foundation which I had never heard of. It turns out that the Barnes Foundation is one of the largest private collections of post impressionist art in the US. He had over 180 Renoir paintings there and most people had never seen the place! My first thought was that I don’t know enough about art to produce it. After a little thought I realized that it was a great opportunity to make an art CD-ROM for people like me—who want to learn, but don’t know have a lot of background in art but were interested in the artists and the story behind the art and the collection.

So we made a CD-ROM called “A Passion for Art.” It did really, really well; the Wall St Journal said it was “one of the greatest CD-ROM’s of any kind since the multimedia revolution began.” I think the reason it was so successful was that I applied everything that I learned in storytelling in filmmaking to interactive. We made the CD-ROM open like a movie but with lots of opportunities to explore the building hear stories, poke around in the archives and read letters from Matisse, all with transparent technology that was easy to use and install.

Was that project influential in your creating at Intel?

A Passion for Art really struck a chord in me, and when later on in my career when I was director of Content at Intel, one of the things I wanted to think about how to deliver the museum experience to people who couldn’t get to cities with great art exhibitions.

It occurred to me that big art exhibitions are similar to where live theater was around the turn of the century. With a great art exhibition, you might bring in works from all over the world; a lot of great curatorial and editorial work is created. A certain number of people come to see it, and then the show is over and all of that great work is gone. The only thing that is left, if you are lucky, is maybe an exhibition catalog.

I thought about kids out in the panhandle of Texas, who can’t necessarily afford to go to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Maybe there was a way to take these big exhibitions and recreate them in high resolution 3-D and make them available over the Internet for the world to see.

I went to the National Gallery and presented the idea. They were going to do this blockbuster “Van Gogh’s Van Gogh” show, and they said, “We like the idea, we’ll help introduce you to the people at the Van Gogh Museum.” They didn’t even have a Web site, but they heard the idea and thought this would be something that Van Gogh would have liked.

They worked with us and we took the Van Gogh show that was at the National Gallery and recreated it in 3D so that it is exactly like it was there right down to the placement of each painting on the wall, the parquet floor and the trim on the wall. We provided the same audio tour, so you could walk through on your own or take the guided tour. You could zoom down and look at individual brush strokes—it was just like being there. We also gave people the ability to walk around the space and talk with other people via chatting. You can “see” other people in the space and chat with them. The whole idea was to have curators take people through and to enable viewers to talk amongst themselves. After that we did the Whitney Museum’s American Century Exhibition, which was a very successful exhibition at the Whitney. There is also a museum shop, in case you want to buy exhibition-related materials. A lot of times, if you don’t go to these exhibitions, you can’t buy the things related to them, and the museum stores only have the generic museum stuff. I wanted people to be able to get the actual exhibition catalog for the show. Generally those are hard find after the exhibition comes down.

Can you still view these exhibitions?

Yes, but not all the features are available anymore. I believe the 2D panoramic image version of Van Gogh is still up. They and a number of other exhibitions are available at

Are you working on any new exhibitions?

Since coming to Microsoft Research, I’ve volunteered my time to the Seattle Art Museum helping them with an exhibition called “Treasures from the Lost Civilization.” It focuses on ancient Chinese bronzes and sculptures from the Szechuan province from a 2000 year old civilization that nobody knows anything about. In the basement of the museum, there was a virtual reality dig where you can go in and virtually “dig” pieces out of the pit and hold them in your hands and look at them. Throughout the museum there were kiosks produced as well which enabled you to look at objects in detail and get some historical context.

I’m also working with a group that’s planning a European Leonardo exhibition in 2005 with the Louvre, British Library, Ambrosiana and others to think about how technology can expand education and outreach for it.

Sounds fascinating.

We’re just scratching the surface of what will possible in the next few years. I feel very lucky to be working where I am, with a group of people that create great technology and where our company management really supports our involvement to help arts and culture education.

Thank you.

Thanks for the opportunity.



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