This Map to the Stars is as far from Hollywood as, say, Mars.
Microsoft Corp. late Monday took the wraps off a vast visual guide to the universe that is powered by some of the world's best telescopes.
Developed over the last six years in the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant's research division, the application is being released free of charge in part to show off Microsoft's Visual Experience Engine. The engine provides smooth panning and zooming that allows viewers to focus on a particular planet or cluster of stars without abandoning the scale of the area surrounding it.
"It's gorgeous, that's the main thing," said Laura Danly, curator of Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory. "This is a labor of love and a work of art. It is really deeply thought through."
Microsoft principal researcher Curtis Wong said the visual engine was more of a means to a desirable end than an end in itself. "We develop technologies that can help shape future Microsoft products," he said. "In my group, what we try to do is build something with some larger benefit to the public at large."
Available as a free download from www.worldwidetelescope.org "> www.worldwidetelescope.org , the program works, as one might suspect, only on computers using the latest Microsoft operating systems: Windows XP and Windows Vista. Apple computers with those version of Windows can support the software, which performs best on machines with strong graphics capabilities.
Astronomers and educators said the WorldWide Telescope was important because it amalgamated so much data -- both visual and verbal -- and allowed users to examine space as it appears in natural light or with infrared, X-ray and other views.
"NASA operates a number of telescopes that are daily sending back spectacular images. But if you have a single tool that will let you get to all the images and see how they relate in context, it becomes an incredible opportunity for investigation and exploration," said Caltech astronomer Robert Hurt, who works on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
"One of the nice things about WorldWide Telescope is that it has almost a cinematic representation of the data," Hurt said. Unlike Google Inc.'s space view, Google Sky, "the interface was designed from the ground up to be optimized for sky navigation."
Griffith's Danly agreed, saying that the Google version "is not as ambitious a project."
Besides moving in or out to peer at an object, WorldWide Telescope viewers can choose perspectives from different locations on Earth. And they can look at the universe as it appeared far in the past, or as it will in the future, turning the program into something of a virtual time machine. Hit fast forward and you can watch Jupiter's moons spinning as they orbit the planet.
All of which can be a bit intimidating -- space is, after all, pretty big -- and the navigation takes some getting used to.
But WorldWide Telescope also offers guided tours, in which experts give slide shows on areas of interest. Users can create and share their own slide shows, the best of which will be offered up to all others on the system.
Wong, who grew up in L.A., said he expected the project to be especially popular with students.
"I didn't really see the stars well until I was in high school" because of all the ambient light in the city, Wong said. "About 70% of U.S. kids live in large urban areas, and I doubt if any of them have seen the Milky Way.
"This is my way of showing them."