Reinventing Our Visual World, Pixel By Pixel

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lovingly review them later using the clunky Windows Explorer thumbnail display (or even the Finder application on Mac OS X, which is almost as bad). But if your computer can turn your pictures into objects you can almost hold and slide around as if they were 5×7 prints on a big table—or send off to others as easily as if you were slipping them into a mailbox—you’re much more likely to enjoy the task. You’re probably going to rediscover old photos you’d forgotten about, or decide to share pictures on a whim with others who might enjoy them.

Seadragon Screen ShotI’m just as excited about two other image-exploration applications called Seadragon and Photosynth, though neither is yet available to use with your personal images, as PicMe is. Both are projects at Microsoft Live Labs, a division of the software giant devoted to building innovative Internet-based software. Seadragon is an interface for zooming in and out on visual information of all sorts, from photographs to entire Web pages, across a huge range of scales and resolutions. Imagine, for example, being able to see an entire edition of a newspaper in a single glance, then have the option of zooming in on just one page, or just one article, or a few lines of text in an advertisement—or even an entire microfilm-like product catalog embedded in that ad.

Or imagine seeing all of your photos in one big spread, and being able to zoom in instantly on any individual photo—or theoretically even further, exploring the world reflected in every raindrop. When you’re not dealing with images on physical paper, after all, there’s no reason for a limit on how much you can zoom in or out. And that’s the whole premise of Seadragon: that our computer interfaces should flexibly scale visual material so that we can browse it at any desired level of detail.

Photosynth, meanwhile, is an interface that’s built on SeaDragon but is designed specifically for correlating large groups of photographs into simulated 3-D environments, which then become the interfaces for exploring the individual photos. It’s so mind-blowingly cool that I’m going to have to put off a real description until a future column, where I’ll have more space to talk about the blurring boundary between still 2-D photography and virtual 3-D environments. In the meantime, if you’re interested you should really just go and watch this demo from the May 2007 TED Conference in Monterey, CA. You can also download a preview version of Photosynth (Windows only).

Gigapan Screen ShotI can’t close without mentioning one more imaging project that pushes the boundaries of scale, resolution, and zooming. It’s the Gigapan project, which allows people with consumer-grade digital cameras to contribute to a growing collection ultra-high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic images taken at locations around the planet. The trick to making one of these images is to attach a camera to a robotic, tripod-mounted pan-and-tilt drive that precisely aligns it for a series of dozens or hundreds of photographs, then use special software to stitch the images together into giant “gigapixel” panoramas. You can browse some of these images at, and for an even more immersive experience, you can see the photographic panoramas overlaid upon their real locations inside Google Earth (a free, downloadable 3-D map browser for Mac and Windows).

It’s hard to convey in words the personal excitement I feel when I’m able to use tools like PicMe, Photosynth, or the Gigapan browser to explore photo collections. Such tools liberate our digital photos from the computer folders where they’ve been languishing and make them into objects we can scrutinize, play with, and redeploy in hundreds of different ways. But then again, I’m someone who tends to feel about my photographs the way Amerigo Vespucci probably did about his maps, or Giambattista Bodoni about his typefaces. Welcome to my world.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Reinventing Our Visual World, Pixel By Pixel”

  1. This is great. I look forward to seeing what fun stuff people suggest you write about.

    Hey didn’t Al Gore invent the World Wide Wade?

  2. Zach says:

    I saw the PicMe presentation at WebInno as well and was pretty amazed at the interface that you called: “almost too pretty for Windows”. I was even more impressed at the quickness of the client app – I haven’t seen something that snappy and quick, that is that visually heavy, well… ever.

    Also, the way it addresses a digital file as an almost physical item- seems intuitive and simple- I think it’s fair to say that the cover-flow concept is revolutionizing UI.

    And the reason I wanted to write in: This is a great idea for a weekly section!