photosynth: technology previews at TED

The 2007 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference brought its usual 50+ visionary speakers on topics as diverse as global conflict, ecological sustainability, technological innovation, lexicography, and industrial design. Most recognizable on the list were Bill Clinton and Richard Dawkins, presenting alongside a host of luminary-types from a variety of fields. The format for all presenters is an 18-minute speech, most of which can be viewed on YouTube or the TED site.

The most compelling technology I have encountered thus far from the TED talks is Photosynth, Microsoft’s new photo imaging and mapping software. In the following clip, Blaise Aguera y Arcas demonstrates the new technology, which is literally unlike anything I have ever seen:

According to the Microsoft Live Labs site, Photosynth “takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities, and displays them in a reconstructed three-dimensional space.” It goes on to compare this process to the computerized, navigable equivalent of depth perception. A demo of Photosynth is now available, but it has some heavy compatibility requirements. (Not surprisingly, it only runs on Windows.)

The most radical aspect of this technology is its ability to leverage algorythmic analysis of digital photographs to translate images into discrete sources of information as well as logically linkable entities. It further promises to put the user-created folksonomy of photo tagging to good use in creating a web of visual access points that could revolutionize web navigability, which until now has been firmly text-based. Photosynth’s ability to simultaneously zoom and render clear images is powered by Seadragon, software that Microsoft hopes will create a “smoother” image browsing experience regardless of bandwidth. Microsoft’s lists the following four “promises” of Seadragon:

  1. Speed of navigation is independent of the size or number of objects.
  2. Performance depends only on the ratio of bandwidth to pixels on the screen.
  3. Transitions are smooth as butter.
  4. Scaling is near perfect and rapid for screens of any resolution.

One limitation of Photosynth – although the 3-D zoom and pan aspect is admittedly superior to anything I’ve used, the demos seem to rely solely on ground-perspective snapshots that make aerial views difficult to maneuver and largely unavailable. However, if combined with satellite data similar to that found in Google Maps or Google Earth this tool could be truly mind-blowing (not sure how Microsoft would feel about the competitive aspect of this, though).

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