What Is Photosynth?
Developed by Live Labs--Microsoft's applied research arm--Photosynth automatically stitches together digital photographs to create a somewhat abstract but high-resolution three-dimensional re-creation (dubbed a synth) for the world to explore. And though ready-made examples have been previewable for several months now, Photosynth.net has finally thrown its doors open for everyone to upload up to 20GB of photos.
The 3D photo reconstructions suggest an improbable three-way love child of a David Hockney collage, Apple's QuickTime VR, and Microsoft Research's excellent WorldWide Telescope. But as PC World's former editor in chief Harry McCracken said when Photosynth technology was displayed in preview at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2006, it's one of the more mind-blowing things to appear since Google Earth.
A New Window to the World
Assuming that the launch goes smoothly, Photosynth will have some dazzling collections for visitors to dive into right away, thanks to such early testers and partners as National Geographic and NASA. Some of my favorite synths are of the Piazza San Marco, Machu Picchu ruins, Venice Grand Canal, Taj Mahal, Grassi Lakes, Stonehenge, the U.S. National Archives, and Dale Chihuly glass sculpture exhibits (links are direct). Some of the detail shown in the latter three collections wouldn't be possible to see if you were there in person. Speaking of amazing (and seemingly impossible) possibilities, Photosynth has already been used for this episode of CSI New York.
- A bottom-right icon allows you to have a synth occupy your entire browser window. You can improve the view further by putting your browser into full-screen mode with your F11 function key.
- You can zoom in and out with your mouse wheel; the zoom area is based on your mouse location.
-The tilde (~) key toggles the grid view mode; this allows you to see the entire photo collection that forms any synth.
-The spacebar lets you jump to the next photo in the spatial tour.
-You can also navigate a synth gamer-style, with the 'w s a d e c' keys.
To use Photosynth.net, you'll need to install two small apps: a browser plug-in supporting Firefox 2 or 3 and Internet Explorer 7, and the Photosynth desktop application for uploading photos. You'll also need to be running Windows XP or Windows Vista, and have a PC configured with at least 256MB of RAM (1GB is recommended) and at least 32MB of graphics memory. Mac users who wish to try the site can run it under Boot Camp, but OS X isn't supported (yet…), nor is Parallels or VMware Fusion.
Creating Your Own Synth
Microsoft provides an excellent primer on the best way to shoot photos for use in Photosynth. The basics: Capture JPEG images only (unlimited size); try and overlap shots by about 50 percent; start with a wide panoramic shot before moving in for greater detail; ensure that all photos are oriented correctly; and limit the angles between photos. The more suitable your shots are, the more coordinates Photosynth will have to build a reconstruction with (3D designers will be familiar with this "point cloud" concept). The more points there are, the more "synthy" your collection will be.
A quick note on copyright: Since all synths are public for the moment, it's good to see that you're able to fully--or partially--restrict the reuse of your photos through a full spectrum of Creative Commons license options.
Uploading a simple 10-photo synth takes a matter of minutes. I went a little more extreme and uploaded a 156-photo test shot at San Francisco's well-known Red's Java House by the bay. My collection (214MB of 2048-by-1536-resolution shots) took about 75 minutes to upload and was immediately available as a synth. As an indication of just how far Photosynth has come, the demo shown at the 2007 TED Conference--which took multiple machines two weeks to calculate--can now be created in an hour, on a single laptop.
Community features will play a big role on Photosynth.net. At launch, you can easily write captions and keyword tags for your photos and use Virtual Earth to geo-tag your collection (though this feature was a bit sluggish when I tried it). For synths created by other users, you can post comments and flag inappropriate content. To share any synth with a friend, you can use a unique direct-link URL (good for IM or e-mail) or--best of all--copy a synth's embed code and slap it on your blog.
More to Come...
Is Photosynth.net a beta? From the Web site: "What you see on this site is the first of many versions of Photosynth. Call it beta, call it 1.0, call it whatever you want… just know we are hard at work adding support for more browsers, more platforms, and more hardware, and just making the experience that much more amazing."
The nimble Photosynth team definitely has some interesting things it wants to explore. Think possible Mac and Flickr support, groups, favorites, RSS feeds, scripted tours, private synths, greater Virtual Earth integration, and an open API for mashups. Then there's the game-changing feature first alluded to a couple of years ago: cross-linking between the synths of various users or even combining photos of the same place--taken by different people, at different times--into one giant supersynth to rule them all.