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Microsoft Takes New Photosynth Out for a Spin

Microsoft Takes New Photosynth Out for a Spin

Many digital shutterbugs have dabbled with panorama photography, stitching together a number of sequential pictures for a dramatic effect. A few years ago, Microsoft took panorama photography to a new dimension -- 3D -- with Photosynth, allowing byte shooters to create photos that a viewer could actually "walk" around in. Its latest version lets users do a lot more.

By John P. Mello Jr.
12/11/13 9:22 AM PT

Microsoft on Tuesday previewed the third generation of its Photosynth technology, touting it as a dramatic step forward in smoothness and simplicity.

Four effects are now available in Photosynth. There's Spin -- which lets you rotate an object in the photo around itself -- and Panorama -- which lets you "stand" at the center of a photo and rotate 360 degrees around yourself.

Additional effects include Walk and Wall. Walk allows you to follow a path in the photo -- stroll through a city's streets, for instance, or march down a hiking trail in the woods. Wall lets you slide across a panorama, as well as zoom in and out on objects in the photo.

Once a synth is created, people can easily share on Facebook and Twitter, as well as embed it on their own site.

"The addition of the Walk and Spin models of Photosynth can enable users to take advantage of Photosynth in new ways, and share their experiences in a way they couldn't before," Wes Miller, a research analyst with Directions on Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld.

"I think it's apparent that this is moving from a research project into something we can expect to see more deeply embedded into Microsoft products and services," he added. "While not perfect, it does seem to be delivering functionality to users that we can't have imagined a few years ago."

How the Magic Works

To create its "synths," Photosynth analyzes your photos to identify features common to them.

It takes that information and through a process called "bundle adjustment," calculates 3D data about the photos -- where in space the photo was captured, for example, and the orientation of the camera when the picture was taken.

The bundle data, along with the feature points, is used to generate 3D shapes and a rough 3D model of the synth. That model is refined to produce the smooth effects found in Photosynth.

To view synths in all their glory, you need a Web browser that supports WebGL, as well as a graphics card that can handle the technology's demands.

App in the Wings

WebGL is associated with the new wave of HTML 5 technologies designed to improve the use of graphics on the Web.

"What makes WebGL transformative is that for the first time, you have access to hardware resources on the device," Marcus Kruger, chairman of Goo Technologies, told TechNewsWorld.

"By having access to the GPU -- the graphics chip -- you can do advanced 3D graphics, but you can also do really advanced 2D graphics that are hardware created so they're very smooth and very rich," Kruger said.

"Without WebGL, Photosynth would probably not be feasible at all," he added.

At this point in Photosynth's development, Microsoft is focusing on improving the service and the Web experience of the tool. It has an app in the works that will use the technology, but it's keeping mum about the details.

Combining Cartography With Synth

Microsoft sees the technologies used in Photosynth in the future being married to those deployed in Bing Maps Preview.

The Bing Maps Preview app's 3D experience demonstrates the company's ability to collect aerial imagery and render 3D views of the world from the scale of the planet to the scale of the street.

Photosynth is different. It allows individuals to collect and render local 3D views on their own, from the scale of the street on down.

These technologies are complementary, so as the company moves toward its goal of recreating the physical world on a digital canvas and showing it at all important scales, it is aiming for a combined viewing experience that overlays the best synths on the 3D Maps experience.

Weapon in Rivalry

Adding synths to maps could give Microsoft a leg-up on one of its largest rivals.

"This is a way to differentiate Microsoft from Google," Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"Google has the corner on search, but they don't have the corner on all content," he pointed out.

"While Google captures a lot of pictures and videos, they don't necessarily capture the highest-quality pictures and videos, so Microsoft is trying to offer more compelling alternatives to what Google has to offer. Photosynth is an example of how it intends to do that," said Enderle.

"I think Microsoft has a play here that people can get excited about," he added.

No doubt Microsoft hopes to generate more excitement about 3D photography online than exists for it offline. Some camera makers have begun stripping 3D features from new models of their cameras.

"People aren't turned on by it," David D. Busch, creative director of the David Busch Photography Guides, told TechNewsWorld.

"They don't seem to be interested in 3D," he said, "and when you compound that with the difficulty of sharing and playing back, it's been pretty much dead in the water."


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