I Present to You: The Universe

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Racing to the South Pole was so last century—this decade, we’re going for the universe. Except now it’s Google vs. Microsoft, and the competition is 1’s and 0’s instead of sleds and dogs. In a bid to compete with, or simply discredit, Google’s wildly popular 3D mapping software, Google Earth, Microsoft today announced a beta version of WorldWide Telescope (WWT). Put simply, it’s everything in space—at the touch of a mouse.

Microsoft states: “The WorldWide Telescope is a Web 2.0 visualization software environment that enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope—bringing together imagery from the best ground and space-based telescopes in the world for a seamless exploration of the universe.” The borg, as some call it, goes on to explain how the program will act as an educational tool for children, exciting them about space and the science of exploration.

So why then do we care here at BACKPACKER? It’s not like we’re going to Mars for a weekend of red rock camping. The answer is simple: Our editors are experiencing—and documenting—first-hand the intersection of technology and the outdoors. Just this month, in fact, we worked on an 8-page special about using digital tools to plan, execute, and share outdoor adventures. It was a challenge, to say the least. And the clash, such as it is, will only get more intense.

“How are we supposed to put the entire Internet into 100 words?” one frazzled editor asked.

“It’s amazing how many options are out there!” another chimed in. And that’s not counting the late nights.

Or the (extremely tasteful) expletives.

But Microsoft’s announcement brings up a broader, more philosophical issue for the magazine: How do we, as hikers, push people to experience the outdoors, the wilderness, the sky in real life—while, at the same time, encouraging them to spend more hours in front of a computer screen? Any dedicated backpacker knows what it’s like to be caught in a torrential downpour, only to have the heavens open up and splash the landscape with light. Or the experience of hiking for days to a hidden alpine lake. Or, in this case, to look up at true stars. When a program this complex, this unique, and this scarily real comes out, we have to wonder: Will young kids these days sit at their computers rather than exploring the world on foot? Or will some still go out there and skin their knees?

-Tim Shisler

WorldWide Telescope Now Available (The Map Room)