Gigapixels: The (Really) Big Picture

Innovative imaging technologies have always had a knack for furthering science. Without telescopes (originally devised to help military commanders spot enemies on the battlefield), we might still have an Earth-centered view of the solar system. Without microscopes, we might still believe that flies spontaneously arise from rotting meat.

A few weeks ago, a few of my NOVA colleagues and I attended The Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging and glimpsed some of the ways that this clever new technology is impacting not just science but also education and the art world.

What's a "gigapixel" image? Just what it sounds like--an image comprised of billions of pixels. (By contrast, the cherished family photos you may have on your computer are likely mere "megas.") To get a sense of their power, peruse this popular example, a political junkie's version of "Where's Waldo?":

(inauguration Gigapan copyright David Bergman)

If you zoom in to the right spot, you can even see the details of Hillary Clinton's earrings. And the inauguration image is only 1.5 gigapixels. The largest to date, a stunning cityscape of Rio de Janeiro, is a whopping 152 gigapixels. Gigapixel imaging essentially combines robotics, digital cameras, and "stitching" software to create ultra-high-resolution pictures from hundreds or even thousands of smaller pictures. (The Rio record-breaker used over 12,000.)
The striking panoramas of Mars we've all been marveling at since Spirit and Opportunity began roving the distant planet are a key case in the history of the technology. Here's an example of their scope:

(Gigapan courtesy NASA)

The Mars panoramas are made from smaller snapshots taken by cameras on the rovers' robotic heads. (For the one above, Spirit took 470 individual images over the course of 10 days.) You can see the cameras here on her sister-rover Opportunity:

enduranceplus_opportunity.jpg (composite Image courtesy NASA)

In 2004, NASA Ames computer scientist Randy Sargent developed a program to (near) seamlessly stitch the small pictures together, drawing on the robot's coordinates. Sargent subsequently partnered with Illah Nourbakhsh, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon, to develop the technology for widespread scientific and commercial use. And with financial backing from Google, what they dubbed the GigaPan process took off.

Gigapixel images are now doing much more than helping planetary scientists identify features on the martian surface. Ecologists are using them to gauge the biodiversity of New England forests. Archeologists are documenting Neolithic petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia. Geologists are analyzing them to see how an undulating landscape might have swayed the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the coming months, we'll report more on how gigapixel images are impacting science, and even give you a real view "Inside NOVA" as we test out GigaPan equipment in our offices and studios.

User Comments:

Susan, Excellent post -- a nice take on gigapan. I look forward to your incorporating gigapans here. Thanks for the mention.

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