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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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May232008

Coming to a School Near You: Gigapixel Photography?

If that five-megapixel camera isn’t cutting it for your students any more, have I got the gizmo for you. Carnegie Mellon University is prototyping a robotic camera mount that will allow any consumer digital camera to capture gigapixel-resolution - yes, I said gigapixel - images. They’re already working to get these photo-taking robots into the hands of students, and in the meantime, I’ve gotten to try one out for myself.

First, a bit of background. Do you remember when the Mars Rover was wandering the Martian landscape, taking those amazing panorama photos for NASA? To take those photos, they were using a technology called PanCam, which was made up of a pair of digital cameras on a robotic mount. The PanCam would swivel back and forth, up and down, capturing the landscape. Eventually, these pictures were stitched together, allowing NASA scientists to view the surface of Mars in amazing 3D detail.

Flash forward to September 2007, when Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab announced that they had developed a prototype for a consumer version of the same technology used on the Mars Rover mission.

They called their device the Gigapan - as in gigapixel panorama. The consumer version of the robotic mount would fit atop any tripod, and hold in place any run-of-the-mill digital camera. Once it was properly calibrated, the gigapan could pan-and-scan any scene and take dozens, even hundreds, of photos that could then be stitched into an ultra-high resolution photograph.

The Gigapan sounded almost too cool to be true. So you can imagine how excited I was when Carnegie Mellon offered to let me give one a test drive.

My Gigapan loaner arrived a couple of weeks ago in a yellow plastic case that looked sturdy enough to throw off a roof. (Not that I’d ever try that, of course.) The Carnegie Mellon folks included a consumer five-megapixel camera in the kit, though I could easily use one of my own if I wanted. I spent about 20 minutes reviewing a series of video tutorials the university had uploaded to YouTube, which gave me more than enough information to get started. Meanwhile, one of my cats was kind enough to explore the Gigapan as well, so I could take a photo to show off the scale of the device:

Dizzy vs the Gigapan

Taking a Gigapan panorama is very straightforward. Once you’ve screwed the camera in place and aligned it in the right position, you activate the Gigapan and go through a quick procedure to measure the camera’s field of view, with the camera zoomed as far as its optics will allow. This tells the gigapan how many degrees it should pan between each photograph, and once you’ve done this, you don’t have to reset it again unless you switch to another type of digital camera.

After that, you press the Gigapan’s up-down and left-right buttons to set the dimensions of you’re photo. So if you’re taking a picture of a building, for example, you’d rotate the gigapan and set it so it knows the top left and bottom right of the building. Once you’ve done that, it’ll know to capture everything in between.

The Gigapan then runs you through a short checklist to ensure that you’ve locked the camera’s focus and exposure, so all the pictures it takes are consistent. As soon as the checklist is done, the fun begins. The Gigapan whirs to life, taking a picture representing the extreme top left of the desired panorama. A little arm presses down on the shutter, pauses, then rotates the camera a few degrees downward before taking another picture and repeating the process. Once it’s done taking an entire vertical row of pictures, it revs to the right a few degrees, goes back to the top and starts all over again. The entire process can take 30 minutes or more, depending on how many pictures are required for your panorama. So far, the largest ones I’ve taken have been just shy of 200 photos.

Once you’ve downloaded the pictures onto your PC or Mac, you use the Gigapan’s software to stitch them together and upload the final panorama to the Gigapan website. The site uses a custom player that allows users to explore the photos without downloading the whole thing at once - good news since all of these pics are at least 50 megabytes in size. For example, here’s a picture I took at Washington DC’s Union Station. The one displayed here is a static, low-resolution version:

unionstation-west.jpg

Click the picture to see the full-resolution version on the Gigapan website. At first, it won’t look much different than the low-res one seen here, so start clicking on it. You can navigate deeper and deeper into the picture, just like you can navigate closer and closer to a neighborhood when using Google Maps. Unlike normal photos, though, the picture doesn’t pixelate as you get closer. It stays in focus, despite the fact that you’re zooming further and further in. There are even some thumbnails listed just below the panorama, which you can click for an automatic fly-through to the location of that particular detail from the panorama. You can also explore some of the other panoramas I’ve photographed around Washington DC.

The creators of the Gigapan are hoping to release a consumer version of the robot later this year. The robot itself will probably cost in the $300 range, though they’re also planning to make a full kit available, including the Gigapan, a digital camera, tripod, rechargable batteries, etc., for closer to $800.

Meanwhile, they’re wasting no time thinking about educational uses for the device. Not long after the fall 2007 premiere of the Gigapan, Carnegie Mellon announced a partnership with UNESCO to put Gigapans in the hands of students around the world to photograph UNESCO World Heritage sites. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Tourism plans to use the device to create high-res panoramas of Civil War battlegrounds like Gettysburg.

So it’s just a matter of time before the Gigapan becomes available and affordable to schools. It seems there are a multitude of opportunities for students to capture local ecology, art and architecture, preserving the world around them in extraordinary detail. What would you do with a Gigapan? -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools

Responses

wow that is some mega news lol who would have thought they they actually needed even better resolutions for consumers than are available at the moment already

OMG!!! I’m telling all my friends! How COOOL! I’m going to see if I can get my hands on one of these.

Wow! This is fantastic! I would love to get one for my school. Thanks for the heads up!

Imagine using this for porn ;)

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