A picture is worth a thousand words. How about all of the pictures ever taken of one place?
Microsoft Photosynth is a new and incredibly interesting software technology developed in collaboration with the University of Washington, Microsoft Research, and Seadragon. Photosynth represents a serious evolution in spacial representation technology. The software creates 3D environments out of pictures for easy visualization and manipulation by users. Photosynth organizes images automatically by determining the physical location of where images were captured and what the subject matter of the image is. Like puzzle pieces, individual images are put together to create a complete picture or in this case, 3D world. As Photosynth gets more images to build with the environment will “grow in complexity”. It creates the composite environment using nothing more than a set of images files. New photos are assimilated into an environment with “no hand intervention” and “no tagging” by the user.
Blaise Aguera y Arcas is one of the main developers of the technology. Watch this excellent overview by him:
Internet Mapping and Photography – Convergence of Ideas
Technologies like Google Maps and Google Earth fundamentally changed the way people use geospatial information in everyday life. Humanity is no longer limited by static maps. Everybody is a cartographer of sorts now. Users can easily redefine borders, content, and even overlay driving directions on their custom maps. The mapping technologies we take for granted today are made possible by satellite imagery. It would be hard to argue they don’t offer a “global perspective” of things. They have actually replaced globes for such a perspective.
Photo sharing websites like Flickr, Picasa, and Shutterfly are made possible by the recent revolution in photography. The proliferation of digital cameras, high-speed internet, and storage space enables anybody to be a photographer today. If you think about it, a site like Flickr is one giant collective photo album / gallery. Flickr is a photography lover’s dream. The photos are divided and sub-divided into groups through user-generated keyword tags, geographic locations, sets, and groups etc. Flikr and sites like it are capable of almost infinite categorization. They create a dynamic archive of our world shaped by the collective photographic record of humanity. Ok, stretching too far? Spend some time on the photo sharing sites and think about the family album you grew up with. Ask a 16 year old what a negative is.
The “point cloud” 3D models Photosynth generates are very cool in their own right but of course there are other interesting image display applications already: 360 degree “panoramic” images, “virtual tours”, Google Street View, and the previously mentioned mapping tools. Photo sharing sites/applications have improved dramatically in recent years. Photosynth does not replace photo sharing. It builds on the ideas of web mapping and photo tools to create something very new.
How is it new and different?
The social aspect of Photosynth is what makes it so exciting and such a radically different application. Satellite imagery is scarce so maps are not timely. Other imagery tools need setup by the user. Photosynth has near unlimited data to create a visual representation of something. Its data set could include the millions and billions of individual images on the web. 3D models are created automatically without user input. Photo sharing sites rely on users to tag photos with relevant keyword information so they can be organized and categorized. Photosynth analyzes the image itself to determine what it is in relation to others in a set. Using their incredible image collections Photosynth allows social networking users to “make something emergent that’s greater than the sum of its parts”.
What are the applications for this type of technology?
Use your imagination. A photo set of a given location is the only requirement. The demo only has a handful of locations but they are thoroughly enjoyable to travel through. Right now Photosynth is in pre-beta development but you can try it by visiting the Microsoft Labs site and downloading a plug-in. Microsoft acquired Seadragon in early 2006 and the Photsynth project is currently being developed by the Microsoft Labs group. While you shouldn’t expect to build your virtual closet anytime soon, the folks at Photosynth say they are working hard to bring this technology to market.