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August 2008

Blaise Aguera y Arcas: Awe-inspiring Photosynth Demo

    Several months ago I began watching TED lectures for want of inspiration. Sometimes they are sent to me by family and friends, and sometimes I will choose one at random. Every lecture I have watched has been inspiring or touched me in some way. However, quite naturally, some strike a chord with me more than others. This one, perhaps because I think visually, blew me away. If there was ever something that comes close to illustrating a collective experience, this is it.
    Blaise Aguera y Arcas developed a program called Seadragon, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2006. Seadragon is an environment in which you can interact with images seamlessly (panning, zooming, rearranging, etc.) with enormous amounts of visual data. It doesn’t matter how big the collections are or how big the images are. You are able to “dive” through images and have a multi-resolution experience. The only thing that limits the performance of this system is the number of pixels on your screen.
    Photosynth merges two technologies, one is Seadragon and the other is some computer vision research done by Noah Snavely, a graduate student from the University of Washington, co-advised by Steve Sites, and Rick Szeleczky at Microsoft Research.  What is unique about Photosynth is that the spatial arrangement of the images becomes meaningful. The computer vision algorithms have registered these images together so that they correspond to the real space. The aggregate view from the individual photos of Notre Dame Cathedral is nothing less than astounding. It was achieved entirely computationally from images acquired from Flickr. What becomes significant is that what we believe to be a unique individual experience now becomes a part of a collective memory. By using this technology we are able to acquire images from social networks, link them together, and create something that represents a Gestalt (the result being greater than the sum of its parts). The more users there are, the more everyone benefits, because each user’s image is being tagged with someone else's metadata. Therefore, each image is enriched with every new photo that is added. This could very well redefine the way we see the world, or at the very least, the way we see the digital world.