In 1987, six years after AIDS became an officially recognized disease, the heartbreak of the epidemic was made real in the form of a huge, 1,920 panel quilt created to commemorate the first victims of the disease. Each panel – about the size of a coffin – honored one of the fallen ones who, in the deeply dark years before prevention and effective treatment, risked a death sentence just for being who they were.
Parts of that quilt are now being spread out on the National Mall in DC and the NAMES Project will display the entire quilt over the next 31 days. You don’t have to hop on the Amtrak to see it, however, thanks to a few clever hacks by Microsoft Garage, an internal project group designed to encourage innovation.
The quilt had been digitized over the years, resulting in 55GB of flat files depicting eight panels per image. Using the computing power of Microsoft Azure and the Bing maps engine, Microsoft was able to digitize the entire quilt and create a browseable database of the entire thing – all 48,000 panels.
With help from researchers at University of Iowa and Brown University they built the AIDS Quilt Touch Interface so you can browse the quilt from anywhere. This makes the entire quilt searchable from anywhere. Visitors in DC can also use touchscreen Surface devices to browse the quilt to find loved ones or comment on particular patches. You can also check out Microsoft Research’s version of the quilt online.
It’s a beautiful concept for a noble mission and, as we work tirelessly towards a cure, it’s good to remember those we lost and those who we will lose until the last patch is sewn down with the last, infinitesimal stitch.