Home' Technology Review : March April 2008 Contents FEATURE STORY
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MARCH /APRIL
Flake's pitch about the Live Labs culture is an energetic one, as
he speaks about his e orts to bridge research science and prod-
uct engineering. Flake, who has worked for numerous research
organizations, including the NEC Research Institute and Yahoo
Research Labs, which he founded and also ran, describes this as
an industry-wide challenge. At Live Labs, "we have a deliberate
hedge portfolio," he explains. "We have a very interesting mix,"
encompassing "40 di erent projects."
Flake is unwilling to discuss many of his projects in detail, but
he brims with excitement about his mandate to "to bring in more
DNA" in the way of raw talent. "We want to create and advance the
state of Internet products and services," he says, but he also speaks
passionately about Live Labs employees as "human Rosetta stones"
who can serve as translators in an R&D world where engineers
and scientists often, in e ect, speak di erent languages.
The Photosynth project, Flake says, epitomizes the kind of suc-
cess he wants to champion through his e orts to overcome the
traditional divide between science and product engineering. It
"represents a serious advancement of the state of the art."
Currently, Photosynth can be seen only in an online demo, but
Agüera y Arcas's team hopes to release it by the end of the year.
What somebody who acquires it can actually do with it remains
to be seen. Point clouds can be made from as few as two or three
images, so one can imagine users creating relatively unsophisti-
cated synths of their own photography---of, say, a family trip to
Mount Rushmore. (Of course, people who have Photosynth might
begin to shoot many more pictures of a given place, in the interest
of being able to make a rich synth later.) But it could also be that
users will tap into online libraries of photos---which will probably
have to be downloaded to a local computer---to create their own
synths of highly photographed sites.
Still, Photosynth is mostly promise with little proof. Techni-
cal questions abound as to how easy it will be to use and what,
exactly, its capabilities will be. Also, despite the Linux origins of
Photo Tourism, Photosynth will remain Windows only for the
And for all Photosynth's immediate appeal, its applications, too,
remain unclear. The world doesn't need another image browser,
even a groundbreaking one. It seems even more unlikely that
users would pay for Photosynth in its current form. In the mean-
time, Photosynth's fortunes will depend on whether it can build a
broad-based community of users. Will it take on new uses for those
who embrace it, as Google Earth has done? More important, will
Microsoft release a final product su ciently open that such a com-
munity can seek uses di erent from those initially intended?
Photosynth developers explain how they create panaromas:
Flake reports that the Photosynth team has conjured dozens
of potential uses, two of which look especially likely.
One is to integrate it more fully with Microsoft Virtual Earth,
making it that tool that takes users to the next step in deep zoom.
With Virtual Earth handling topography and aerial photogra-
phy while Photosynth coördinates a wealth of terrestrial photo-
graphic material, the two applications could give rise to a kind
of lightweight metaverse, to use the term that Agüera y Arcas
invoked at TED.
Noting Photosynth's facility with buildings and city squares,
Seitz also envisions a "scaling up in a big way." "We'd like to capture
whole cities," he says. Indeed, Agüera y Arcas and Stephen Lawler,
general manager of Microsoft's Virtual Earth project, announced
in August 2007 in Las Vegas, at the annual hackers' convention
Defcon, that they're planning a partnership. Once some relatively
minor technical hurdles are cleared, Seitz says, "there's nothing
stopping us from modeling cities."
As people create and store ever greater amounts of digital media,
Photosynth might even enable users to "lifecast" their family photo
albums. "Imagine if you could watch your kids grow up in your own
house," says Flake, "just from your photo collection."
As such ideas percolate, the Photosynth team is hardly sitting
still. Last summer the researchers released an online demo col-
laboration with NASA, and now they are working with the Jet
Propulsion Lab to synth a small part of the surface of Mars.
One does wonder how far Microsoft is willing to bankroll this
kind of geek-out. Then again, as Agüera y Arcas and Flake ask rhe-
torically, how does one put a value on this kind of technical achieve-
ment? For while Photosynth seems somewhat lacking in a clear
path to market, it also seems wholly lacking in competition.
JEFFREY MACINTYRE IS A FREELANCE JOURNALIST WHO WRITES WIDELY ON CUL
TURE, SCIENCE, AND TECHNOLOGY.
BUT WHEN WILL PHOTOSYNTH LAUNCH? Microsoft s Live Labs
took thousands of pictures of the space shuttle Endeavor before its August
2007 mission to the International Space Station; the collection, which includes
shots of the vehicle assembly building, is available on the Photosynth website.
COURTESY OF MICROSOFT LIVE LABS
Links Archive May June 2008 January February 2008 Navigation Previous Page Next Page