Friday, May 9, 2008

Immersive Images

Today's technology blows my mind. Not only are digital cameras so pervasive that they are found in almost every cell phone, but the quality of digital photographs and the methods of presentation are amazing. I have noticed a recent trend that is attempting and largely succeeding at treating the viewer as more than a mere, outside observer. Instead, new technology is immersing the viewer into the world in which the photography was taken. I consider these to be immersive images and thought I would discuss some of the established and up coming technologies here.

  1. Virtual Reality (VR) Panoramas

  2. Google Street View in Google Maps and GE

  3. DigitalUrban Panorama Viewer for Google Earth

  4. Gigapan in Google Earth

  5. Microsoft Photosynth

VR Panoramas
The veteran technology here has to be virtual reality panoramas. These were made widely popular by Apple's Quicktime Virtual Reality (QTVR) standard and can now be seen on most realtors' web sites as an attractive way of presenting homes for sale. They provide a very inuitive and effective experience that truly immerses the viewer in the scene. Simply dragging the scene in any direction replicates moving your head and the ability to zoom is typically included as well. I have spent a little time learning how to create these objects and will discuss the methods that worked for me in a future post. In the mean time, you can check out my first QTVR based on a panoramic image I took at Walker Glacier in Alaska this past year.

Google Street View
Google took the idea of VR panoramas to a whole new level by having cars with automatic panoramic cameras on their roofs drive the streets of most large metropolitan areas. The result is Street View- the ability to "step into" the Google Map or Google Earth street and see what is actually there. Once again, the interface is intuitive, but I will let Google describe it for themselves. Once you have Street View at your disposal, it's amazing how useful it can be to travel parts of your route before you actually get on the road.

DigitalUrban Panorama Viewer
I recently learned that there is a way to embed VR panoramas in Google Earth so that a viewer can step into a photo realistic view of locations on the ground. I will be adding my Walker Glacier panorma shortly using the instructions provided on their blog. I love the fact that this allows a casual user to integrate two such powerful experiences together.

Gigapan in Google Earth
Gigapan expands on the notion of embedding VR panoramas in Google Earth by insisting that they contain gigapixels of photographic data. The basic idea is to use a robotic panoramic mount with a standard digital camera to capture dozens if not hundreds of photos that are then stitched together to form amazingly high resolution VR panoramas. Although the panoramas can be viewed on their website, it is a far more enriching experience to view them in situ in their Google Earth layer. The robotic camera mount will become available to the public in the near future, but it remains to be seen how many people will invest in such a technology and then generate content for others.

Microsoft Photosynth
Whereas Gigapan is based on an extremely deterministic, proactive capture of photos to generate a virtual representation of a scene, Microsoft's new technology named Photosynth assembles 3D scenes based on photographs that are scoured off the web. This amazing technology uses photographic keywords to locate photos of a particular scene and then it uses advanced machine vision algorithms to identify common geometric features in the photos and derive the location of each photo in the scene. And it does all this with no preconceived idea of what the scene is before hand! If you want to see first hand what I just described, check out their technology preview on their site. I imagine that the preview is intended to show the power of the technology and not the final user experience that will likely be similar to other VR photo viewers. Clearly, the power of this technology is that the amount of available web content available to generate an immersive experience is far greater than the number of intentional immersive images. It will be very exciting to see how this technology progresses and becomes integrated with MS's Virtual Earth in the near future!

Update (6/3/2008)
It looks like Google is trying to compete with MS Photosynth with their Look Around feature for select locations in Panoramio. It doesn't seem to be as immersive as Photosynth or nearly as adaptable to the everchanging landscape of the web, but who knows how it will grow in the coming months and years...

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