Reinventing Our Visual World, Pixel By Pixel

Every week I come across news items, tech trends, and useful gadgets and services that I know Xconomy’s readers would find interesting, but that don’t fit with our usual lineup of hyperlocal news stories about Boston’s innovation scene. To create an outlet for such random finds—and, frankly, to get me off Bob and Rebecca’s backs about all the cool stories we’re missing—we’ve decided to carve out a bit of space for articles that don’t necessarily relate to New England. And here it is: my new weekly column, World Wide Wade. (Please pardon the goofy title, but it fits with my intentions, which are that the column take a very wide, occasionally offbeat view of the technology world.)

On my first couple of outings I’m going to try to tie together a few projects and products relating to the reinvention of the visual Internet. I think we’re in the early stages of a radical shift in the types of imagery and image-related tasks that are supported by the Web and software connected to the Web. Anyone who uses a digital camera or even a camera phone ought to be excited about this shift, which is going to make it possible to share, explore, and possibly even inhabit the digital images that we’re all capturing in increasing numbers and at increasing resolution. In today’s column, I’m going to talk mainly about tools for organizing and viewing still 2-D photographs. In a future column, I’ll look at 3-D—and later on, perhaps, at video and animation, which are obviously undergoing their own revolutions.

Finding fun, convenient ways to organize and share our digital photos is a challenge that’s been around since the advent of consumer-level digital photography a decade ago. This technology took a big step forward around 2004 with the emergence of Picasa, a snazzy and flexible photo album organizer, and Flickr, a photo sharing service that introduced great social features like photo annotation and tagging. (Picasa eventually became a Google product and Flickr was snatched up by Yahoo.) After that, the new ideas seemed to peter out for a few years. But finally we’re starting to see some innovation again.

PicMe Screen ShotIn fact, I saw some Wednesday night at the Web Innovators Group meeting in Cambridge, where one of the presentations was from Brookline, MA-based Raizlabs, maker of a handsome—indeed, almost too pretty for Windows—PC photo organizing application called PicMe. The freely downloadable software has too many features to list here, so I’ll only describe two. First is its beautifully intuitive method of organizing your photos into 3-D stacks, with each stack representing a folder on your hard drive. You can flip through the photos in a given stack using forward and backward arrows, or inspect rows of stacks by scrolling past them in 3-D, as if you were flying over skyscrapers in Manhattan. It’s a very nice way to browse through a big photo collection, and is a bit reminiscent of other recent interface innovations such as the Cover Flow feature on iPods and iPhones.

The other nice thing about PicMe is its drag-and-drop method for sharing photos: if you want to e-mail a photo to your mom, just drag it off a stack and drop it on her entry in the contact list on the PicMe screen’s left side. If you want to upload a photo (or a whole stack) to your Flickr, Facebook, or MySpace account, just drop it on that entry.

What PicMe demonstrates is that the interface makes all the difference. If you usually upload photos straight from your digital camera into folders on Windows, chances are slim that you’re going to go back and 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!