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Photographs get a new perspective

22 August 08 16:56 GMT

These days most people take pictures. Even if you have not got a dedicated camera, you have probably got one on your mobile phone. But surely there are more imaginative ways of viewing them? Richard Taylor gives it his best shot.

What do you do with your photos?

If they are just sitting on your PC, shame on you. There is so much more that can be done with them.

At the very least, you could release them from their sheltered existence. Share them with friends, family or the world.

Sites like Flickr have made child's play of just that. You can help people to find them with identifying features - or tags - like theme, mood and even colour.

One of the most popular way to tag is by location known as geo-tagging.

It means that you can take a picture with a GPS-enabled cameraphone and it will automatically record where you were when you took the shot. Over the next year or two standalone cameras with dedicated GPS receivers will be also available.

But once you have got your geo-tagged image, what do you do with it?

Google has done a fine job of incorporating the GPS location data of where you took the photo onto an easily navigable map of the world. But even though you might have dozens of photos taken in the same place they simply sit alongside one another.

3D panoramas

So how about combining - or synthesising - different photos of same landmark?

On a basic level it is very simple to create a panorama by stitching together pictures of one place. But you have to stand rooted to one place.

It would be great if you could merge loads of pictures taken from completely different angles.

Or better still, blend your photos with other people's at the same location, to create something truly spectacular?

In fact, thanks to new synthing technology created by Microsoft Live Labs, you can already create a 3D scene which you can fly around and explore at will.

The Photosynth website has been showing off its potential with some custom collections for many months. But this week it is finally handing over the keys to us, to make our own photos into collections too.

"The synth is actually looking to present your photos in relation to each one and to do that it's finding the key data points in each photograph and then trying to map them into additional photographs," said Paul Foster, Microsoft's technical evangelist.

"So to have a good synth you need to have pictures that overlap so you can then use the synther to construct that virtual world," he said. "You'll be able to ask queries of that image - what is that place, where is that place, how good is the food there?"

Blending similarities

Once you have taken lots and lots of pictures, what do you need to make it work?

You will need to download the photosynth software onto a fairly powerful PC with a good graphics card.

Once you have ingested the photos, the application takes over, blending them by looking for areas of similarity between them.

It then uses complex maths to recreate the 3D-like environment - and that is where the fun really begins because you take over, using the on-screen controls or keyboard to navigate your way around the scene.

You can zoom-in quickly to see intricate details in the photos, or fly to see a different perspective, all remarkably quickly.

Aside from the visual eye candy it offers, "photosynthing" could get us thinking differently about the whole photosharing experience.

"I think friends are going to be using this when they go to gigs and events and festivals, taking photos from different angles and perspectives and then montage those together to create a wonderful 3D, browseable panorama," said Web User Magazine's assistant editor Daniel Booth.

"If Microsoft are really clever they'll then integrate Photosynth with Virtual Earth. They can ask people to take photos of their community, of their towns and cities and then send in the photos," he said. "Then Microsoft have got those raw resources that they can use to turn into 3D cities."

Mr Foster explained that although visual analysis technology has been available for a while, Microsoft has created new techniques which analyses the images and reconstructs a virtual 3D world.

"Compiling that with Seadragon technology allows you to quickly receive your information over the web so you can view those photos not just quickly, but in a 3D setting in relation to each other."

And the same maths is being put to use by researchers working on ways to scan objects in incredible detail.

What we are seeing is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In the future, there is the promise that photographs will yet again change the way we look at the world.

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