Photosynth: The New Best Thing In Photography? The Microsoft photo application called Photosynth assembles a variety of digital snapshots taken at a certain place into a 3-D environment. Two news networks solicited photos from the Inauguration to create "synths" of the event, and Farhad Manjoo calls the results "mesmerizing."
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Photosynth: The New Best Thing In Photography?

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Photosynth: The New Best Thing In Photography?

Photosynth: The New Best Thing In Photography?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For those who wanted to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama but didn't want to brave the cold, there was another way, one that actually allowed you to see more than those with the best views and more than those with the best high-definition screens. Microsoft's Photosynth software, which CNN and MSNBC used, combines thousands of individual digital photographs to generate a 3-D image that you can explore on your computer.

Today, we'll talk about this new technology and what it could mean for the future of digital photography for tourism and for journalism. If you're familiar with Photosynth, what do you use it for? And if you're not familiar and you're just learning about it, what would you like it to be use for? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on Talk of the Nation.

And with us today from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco is Farhad Manjoo. He writes the technology column at Slate.com. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Journalist, Slate.com): Hi, thanks.

CONAN: And how does a Photosynth work?

Mr. MANJOO: Well, it works in a pretty sophisticated way. It takes many different photos taken by different people, and it tries to match where they were taken. It tries to sort of stitch them together by figuring out kind of common patterns in them, so if the different photos were all of the same building, in the example that I used in my article, if they're all of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the software will sort of determine where each photo was taken around the cathedral and then develop from that a 3-D kind of viewing experience from the different photos.

So you would be able to zoom in to the picture and see all these different aspects of these cathedral that you wouldn't be able to see from one photo. That's because it's, you know, the product of multiple photos.

CONAN: So it would be from all around. But nevertheless, some of those images are going to be, you know, professional photographers with fantastic cameras, and some are going to be on my lousy cell phone.

Mr. MANJOO: Right, that's what so great about it. I mean, you get to see different perspectives, and you get to see sort of how different people saw it and how they took different pictures of the events. So at the inauguration, for example, you know, where there were, one guesses, it was probably one of the most photographed events of all time because everyone in the crowd had a camera. Everyone was taking a picture at that moment. You have, you know, professional photographers, CNN people, newspaper people, and then you had people with cell phone cameras, digital cameras.

And so, the Photosynth photos of those events look like these sort of amazing amalgams of different kinds of photos taken from different places. And you get a very accurate and detailed picture of what it looked like that morning.

CONAN: The article that Farhad mentioned is called "All I Want to do is Zoom, Zoom, Zoom," and it was published on Slate.com. There's a link to it at our website, npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation, and he's got links in there to some of these images that we're talking about so you can get some - a much better idea of what we're talking with this. It's not a photo mosaic, really. It's not that old, you know, stand at the Grand Canyon and click, you know, your left - slightly left, center, slightly right, all the way to the right - the old panoramic view. This is something much more sophisticated.

Mr. MANJOO: Right. I mean, I think you could - and it's hard to describe without actually looking at it. But you could think of it as that, as stitching together, you know, a bunch of different photos you took - you might take next to each other. But it does that from all different perspective, so it does that. You know, if you're taking a picture of the Grand Canyon, well, there are, you know, hundreds of pictures of the Grand Canyon or thousands online. If it stitches them all together, you would get perspectives, you know, aerial shots so you can see that perspective and then you move a little to the left and you might what someone took from that little spot. So it's basically kind of a 360-degree view of, you know, the entire scene.

CONAN: So there's that new crystal bridge across that sticks out into the Grand Canyon. You could see a lot of the pictures taken from that, you could get vertigo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: Right, right. I mean, there's - that's what sort of crazy about - or kind of amazing about looking at these pictures. There are - you know, people manage to take - now that cameras are so small, people manage to take pictures from places you would never consider and now, you can see those pictures. You can sort of click on an area of the photo and be taken to - a picture taken from that spot and, you know, where you would never guess that someone would have taken a photo from.

CONAN: If you're one of those who's taken one of those photographs and seen it through this new technology, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How many people would it take to give the software enough images to create one of these 3D environments?

Mr. MANJOO: Well, the software is not that well known. It's on the Web and so at the moment, many of the - these photos have just a few dozen pictures in them. But the ones from the inauguration where some of the biggest and CNN invited its viewers to submit their pictures of the - they call this Photo of the Moment and it was the moment that Obama, you know, took the oath. And viewers submitted their snapshots from that time and that picture had about 700 different photos in it. So I mean, that's the thing. It gets better as there are more photos. So the more people that add photos, the kind of more complete picture you get.

CONAN: And this - it doesn't stop at any one moment. If you keep adding photos, the image will get better and better and better.

Mr. MANJOO: Right, right.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, 800-989-8255. We're talking with Farhad Manjoo about the new technology, Photosynth. If you've used it, if you're familiar with it, give us a call. This is Neil(sp). Neil, with us Boulder, Colorado.

NEIL (Caller): Hi, there. This is indeed quite exciting stuff going on. I did want to point out that this work from Microsoft is actually based on earlier work at the University of Washington, and it was done in a different language, it was done in an open source way, and Microsoft has taken it and done it in a different way. So there are free ways to do the same sort of things if you looked at Photo Tour.

CONAN: It's the same kind of technology?

NEIL: (unintelligible).

Mr. MANJOO: Well actually, the Microsoft technology is based on…

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. MANJOO: They actually used some of their - put some - I mean, it's based on that work and they have some of the people working on that software.

NEIL: So people can go to phototour.cs.washington.edu/bundler and Bundler is the new stuff.

CONAN: OK. Neil, thanks very much. Here's an email we have. This is from Dennis in Whidbey Island in Washington. Please explain the delta between this technology and the spherical immersive panoramas, which have existed for some time. The examples I found on the Photosynth site, he writes, are unimpressive.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. So, I did see a number of panoramas of - panoramic shots of the inauguration and those are made in the way you described earlier, although there are automated ways to do this now. There are automated cameras that do this, which they take a very detailed shot of one section. They move over a little to the left - to the right or left and up and down, and they take another shot, and they do this very fast now so you can get a very detailed panoramic shot. The difference with that and - between that and Photosynth is that - so in the panoramic shot, you can basically see only what that one person saw. You can only see - everything in the shot is taken from that one vantage point. In a Photosynth picture, especially when there are lots of people adding to it, you cam move around to a different spot. So for example in the - ones, there was a Photosynth done of the concert on Sunday at - on Sunday before the inauguration...

CONAN: At the Lincoln Memorial, yeah.

Mr. MANJOO: Right, right. And there, you can see pictures taken from, you know, hundreds of yards behind the stage, behind the Lincoln Memorial where you can just sort of see just barely a memorial, and then you can move up through the crowd, through this, you know, sea of people and see what each person along the way saw. So you get their different perspectives and then go all the way up to, you know, the person who's very close to the stage who had a direct picture of Obama, then you can - so you can see that shot, and then you can turn around and look back on the crowd and see all those people who - you know, some of those people took the pictures that you saw along the way. So you can..

CONAN: (unintelligible).

Mr. MANJOO: Sort of tour through the whole crowd.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's get another caller and this is Kurt in Cincinnati.

KURT (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, Kurt. Go ahead.

KURT: I'm a professional photographer, so my first thought - and I've seen the demos of the Photosynth software from the very beginning and very cool. But when it's calling its photos, our intellectual property considerations look that as far as the creation, the content, and it's now being used in different way.

Mr. MANJOO: Yes. So at the moment, they're using photos that are - that people send to the Photosynth site, so you know, they're - and as part of that, you sign an agreement, you know, when you submit your photo that lets them work on this. I think that, you know, conceivably, it would be a much more amazing tool if they could get all of the pictures on the Web of, you know, say, some event and, you know, make a collaborative photo out of that, but…

CONAN: So presumably, if you're a professional photographer, you're not going to send in your photographs - your digital photographs because you want to preserve the copyright protection.

KURT: Right.

Mr. MANJOO: Right. I would imagine that. As part of their coverage of the event, professional photographers from CNN took part in it. But usually, you don't see professional photographs in these collaborative photos.

KURT: All right.

CONAN: Kurt, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Farhad Manjoo of Slate.com about Photosynth and assembling these remarkable - well, 3D environments of big events. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And this email from Bill in Scottsdale, Arizona. How does this software reconcile the different times when the photos are taken?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. So at the moment, I believe it does not reconcile the different times. So there were, you know, pictures taken over an hour or two time span during the inauguration and you find all of those at that moment. But I think that, you know, you could forsee more advanced versions of this that would be able to…

CONAN: Because there is a time stamp on all those pictures, yeah.

Mr. MANJOO: Right, right. And so you would be able to see all the photos taken at, you know, 10:30, and then see all the photos taken at 11:00 and get kind of a different perspective as it moved through time as well.

CONAN: Let's talk with Jim. Jim, with us from Spencer, Iowa.

JIM (Caller): Oh, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

JIM: Yeah. As I'm listening to this, I can see where - there's this possibility that these applications could be accessed through some sort of spy agency and this kind of thing so that people rather - you know, without knowing it, would be taking photographs with their cameras and different technologies and taxing them and sending them all around the world and then you could drop in and put all these things together and have these images that we would not knowingly be constructing for some spy agency.

CONAN: Or some police agency in the event it was a disturbance of some sort. What about that, Farhad Manjoo?

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah, I think that's interesting. I thought about that when I was writing this to, and when I was looking at these photos, I mean, we have this sort of fear of the government - of government surveillance. But at the moment, we are, you know, included in pictures all over by other people and putting them together would give, you know, give you an insight, give you a picture, a very detailed picture of what's going on without requiring government surveillance. I saw some people on the Web, suggesting that the secret service might use these photos to search for, you know, security threats at the inauguration because these pictures were being put together pretty much live and so this could be sort of a way to…

CONAN: Monitor, yeah.

Mr. MANJOO: Look at what's going on at the scene.

CONAN: Yeah, because you've got all these eyes looking at it for you. Interesting.

Mr. MANJOO: Right.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jim. Let's see if we can go now to Sana(ph) in Buffalo, New York.

SANA (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for having me on. I was just wondering. I actually looked at the CNN Web site and saw the Photosynth that they had of the inauguration moment. I was just wondering if the developers have actually considered the potentials for perhaps using Photosynth to promote awareness about maybe global warming issues or maybe the genocide in Darfur. Is there any potential to use that to promote awareness about issues such as those?

Mr. MANJOO: I mean, I think it's a really interesting application for news and for journalism in general. Right now, we have lots of people taking lots of different pictures of different events, but there's no sort of central way to reconcile them on the Web to figure out where pictures - where certain pictures of, you know, a news event were taken and to figure out how they fit in the context of the event and I think Photosynth is sort of one way to do that, so…

CONAN: And as you point out, the piece also removes or dramatically lessens the possibility that something was Photoshoped and altered in some way. You can check everybody else's pictures.

Mr. MANJOO: Right. I mean, that's - the big sort of disadvantage of digital photography is that you can never be sure right now that any picture you see, any one picture you see is a true representation of what happened at a certain spot. So the way to corroborate that is to have multiple photos and to have multiple photos being sort of automatically sync together this way gives you a level of detail of an event that you can't really have nowadays with, you know, with a single photograph.

CONAN: Sana, thanks very much.

SANA: Thank you.

CONAN: And the other interesting observation you make in the piece is thatour relationship - because of the ubiquity of these digital cameras, from cell phones to real cameras, has changed our relationships with events. You quote somebody in a rock band that says we never go into the audience any more because they're not paying any attention to us. They're just taking pictures.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, it's amazing whenever you go to a big public event nowadays - and I saw many photos of - from the inauguration of this. People are kind of half-paying attention to the event and half-setting up their cell phones to take photos of the event and to capture the event in some way. It's like we sort of have this automatic need to record everything because recording everything is so possible nowadays, so…

CONAN: We got to put it on our Facebook site, right?

Mr. MANJOO: Right, right, exactly. It's an interesting kind of - you know, we - instead of experiencing the event, we record it and that kind of precludes experiencing it in some cases.

CONAN: Yeah. The example you gave us of the Inaugural Ball, there are the president and the first lady dancing and nobody is actually looking at them. They're all looking at their cameras looking at them.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. It's an amazing photograph I saw on the Web where basically, everyone is - has a hand held up with a cell phone in it and no one is kind of paying attention to what's going on.

CONAN: Well, again, we recommend you go to our site at npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation. There's a link to Farhad Manjoo's article, "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom," which appeared on Slate.com yesterday and he's got links to some of these images that we've been talking about. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. MANJOO: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Farhad joined us from the studios of member station KQED and he's Slate.com's technology columnist and author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." Tomorrow, all about Sunday's big game, the Super Bowl or "The Billion Dollar Game." It's a new book about the Super Bowl. Join us then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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