Photographing Spaces, Not Scenes, with Microsoft’s Photosynth

Up to now, software giant Microsoft has largely missed out on the digital photography revolution. The most popular photo editing tools come from Microsoft competitors like Adobe and Apple. Flickr, every geek’s favorite photo-sharing site, was invented in Microsoft’s backyard in Vancouver, BC, but went on to become part of Yahoo. And Corbis, Bill Gates’ bold early-90s experiment in licensing digital images for high-resolution displays in consumers’ homes, devolved into an online stock image house.

But the hottest new twist on digital photography is, unexpectedly, a Microsoft product. It’s a powerful Web service called Photosynth that can analyze multiple photos of a common object or space—say, Michelangelo’s David, or Times Square in New York—and intuit a 3-D model of the depicted subject, which then acts as the scaffolding for an interactive photo tour. The creation of a small Redmond-based product group called Live Labs, Photosynth is more than cool enough to earn Microsoft greater mindshare among photographers, both serious and amateur.

I’ve been playing around with the tool since Microsoft started allowing members of the public to create their own “synths” on August 21. I would call Photosynth almost post-photographic, in the sense that it abandons any allegiance to the idea of a single, definitive image (goodbye, Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville” or Adams’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”) in order to exploit the abundance of images on the Web, or, these days, on any digital photographer’s hard drive. It assembles related images into interactive montages that can be navigated almost as if the user were walking through or around the photographed space or object.

Wade's Copley Square SynthFor example, in early demos of Photosynth, Microsoft showed how hundreds of images pulled from Flickr could be assembled into a massive 3-D montages of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris or the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Words don’t really suffice to explain Photosynth: to understand it, you should just go to the Photosynth website and explore a few synths. I especially invite you to check out three synths I created last weekend around Boston, representing my South End apartment, Copley Square, and the Christian Science complex.

Embedded versions of these synths can also be found on the following pages of this article. Sadly, the special Photosynth viewer runs on Windows machines only, inside the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers; this being a Microsoft project, there isn’t yet a version of the program that works on Macs. But at least the Live Labs people are apologetic about that: when you try going to the Photosynth site on a Mac, you get a message that says “Unfortunately, we’re not cool enough to run on your OS yet.”

When you start exploring a synth, you’ll notice that mousing over an individual image brings up ghostly white outlines, indicating that the synth contains other images presenting the same objects from different angles. Clicking on one of those outlines (or on the arrows around the screen) will take you to those other images, but not instantly: Photosynth provides a smooth, animated transition, as if you were merely turning your head or approaching an object for a closer view.

The best synths—that is, those with the most convincing transitions between images and the most complete sense of spatial unity—are those constructed from hundreds of photos taken with Photosynth in mind, like my three synths. The software’s matching algorithms have more to work with when there’s a lot of overlap between adjacent photos. So if you want to make a synth of an object like a sculpture, for example, you have to … Next Page »

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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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One response to “Photographing Spaces, Not Scenes, with Microsoft’s Photosynth”

  1. It will be very interesting as more synths appear where the photos were obviously taken with the intent of being a synth, as opposed to just whatever photos people happened to have handy. It’s an exciting technology in that people haven’t really fully exercised it yet.

    The Disney Synth Project