Crowdsourcing photosynth

Posted on January 31, 2009

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I wrote about Photosynth when it first came out as a plugin back in August 2007.Then, I wasn’t sure, and felt that it was a technology looking for a reason. Since then, Microsoft have done a few very, very cool things with it. The most important of these is that anyone can now create Photosynths (essentially, think image stitching, but in all dimensions..).

All you have to do is go to the Photosynth site, download the app and chuck some photos at it. It munges away for a bit and then after a bit uploads them all to the Photosynth site and gives you a link. It helps very much when you’re taking the photos to think about the fact that you want them to be connected: they obviously have to be the same scene, and I’ve found that standing reasonably still and taking around you tends to work reasonably well.

A “good synth” (the software tells you how “synthy” your selection is once it’s uploaded it – presumably a measure of how well it has managed to stitch stuff together) is pretty satisfying, although there are some obviously winning features which are missing. The single most obvious one of these is that you can’t add links or hotspots to the synth you create. For museums particularly, I think this’ll be a problem.

I did a synth a while back of the Boxkite at Bristol Museum. It’s a nice object to use (or so I thought) – it’s up in the rafters and you can walk all around it, taking photos from 360 degrees. As it happens, the result is pretty good, but not great. I’m wondering whether the software might have confused one side of the object from the other. Either way, it gives an insight into how museums could start using Photosynth to enhance collections online. More interestingly, perhaps (given the fair size of the Photosynth plugin), it could be used in-gallery (maybe with a Microsoft Surface..) to let audiences really engage with objects. Have a poke around the Photosynth site to get a feel for other museum stuff.

Extending Photosynth a bit further is what this post is all about, though.

When I saw the astonishing CNN Photosynth from Obama’s Inaugeration I started thinking about how else you could use it to enhance online experiences. I had what I thought at the time was an original idea (looking now I realise that Nick Poole had commented on my original post suggesting exactly this!) – how about using Flickr as a source for building a Photosynth?

Apollo 10 Command Module

Apollo 10 Command Module - thanks to Gaetan Lee

I needed an iconic object that would have been Creative Commons licensed on Flickr. Apollo 10 turned out to be a good one – I ran a search on Flickr and found 40 CC photos I could use, all taken in the Making the Modern World gallery of the Science Museum, my old stomping ground.

There’s no API I’m aware of for Photosynth yet. This is another missing trick – imagine if you could step straigt from Flickr to a 3D synthed view of any search… – so for my experiment I had to download the entire set of search results. For this, I used a cunning app called Downloadr, which lets you automatically download all Flickr pics which match a certain search. Then it was just a matter of re-uploading the images via Photosynth.

The result is here. Given that this is entirely made up of images taken at completely different times and by different people, I think it works pretty well. The crowd sourcing element adds a lot to Photosynth, I think. It’s still a shame that it isn’t possible to add links or otherwise play with the resulting synth – I think it’d add a lot.

Let me know if you think of other objects that could be synthed in this way and I’ll give it a go…

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