Microsoft Unveils Web-based "Photosynth" 3D Image Panorama Software (UPDATED)

Aug 21, 2008
By Dan Havlik

Screen grab from a Photosynth of the Parthenon.

(An update to this story in bold below includes a response from Microsoft to image copyright questions in Photosynth.)

A couple of weeks ago we got a sneak peek at some very cool web-based software Microsoft has been developing called Photosynth which automatically transforms groups of images into 3D panoramas. Last night, Microsoft officially took the wraps off Photosynth with hopes it will become a sort of Flickr of the next dimension. And after playing around with it for a few days before the launch, we can see some definite potential.

There are, however, some question marks as well especially as Photosynth relates to professional photographers. For one, Microsoft has still not made it clear to us what rights photographers retain to images they post on the site to form 3D panoramic "synths." We're still checking with Microsoft on the details and will update this story when we get a response. In the mean time, clicking on the "Terms of Use" and "Code of Conduct" sections of the Photosynth site comes up blank. (It actually seems that the site, which just went live a few hours ago, has been overloaded with visitors which might be causing some issues.)

Update: According to Microsoft, all images uploaded to a synth are public so there are currently no licensing rights if you choose to use Photosynth. A professional photographer who uses Photosynth does have the option to click copyright their work so their name/company and copyright would appear in the lower right hand corner of their image.

Feeling Synthy?
There are a few kinks to the Photosynth experience as well. For one, at this point, you can only access it from Windows-based computers – no Mac or Linux compatibility yet – though Microsoft says this will change in the future. System requirements are also high for using Photosynth. In particular, you need a better than average graphics card, and even with a brand new Lenovo T61p notebook (2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of 667MHz DDR2, 256MB Nvidia Quadro FX 570M grapics card) we were testing, it took a few seconds for images to rez up as we sampled synths of the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy and the Great Sphinx of Giza.

But, like we said, Photosynth has a lot of potential especially for travel, real estate and documentary photography, allowing you to inhabit a place simply by clicking through a series of photos. To navigate through a space, Photosynth with automatically throw up white frames to fly you to the next image of your choice.

Moving from section to section – even 360 degrees if there are enough photos to support it – is done just by clicking through to each white frame or simple clicking on the arrows. It's definitely a unique experience, one that combines the feel of a QuickTime VR with the interactive video game experience of something like Grand Theft Auto IV. (Would love to see a real-life Liberty City synth!)

On the downside, you need a lot of photos to create a good Photosynth – the more the better – taken from multiple angles to create a full 3-D experience. (The site gives you a percentage of how "Synthy" a particular Photosyth is based on the number and location quality of the images.)

On the plus side, the software lets you zoom in infinitely on a specific location so you can see all the details of a particular environment. In one synth sample we viewed of the apartment of a Microsoft employee we could read the titles of the guy's CD collection (lots of Death Metal) and DVDs (luckily, for him, no porn lying around).

Though there are clearly some question marks to Photosynth at this point, it's worth checking out – if the overloaded home site stops crashing for a few minutes!

To try it out, click here. More details from Microsoft Live Labs on what Photosynth is all about can be found here.

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