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Saving Stonehenge or previewing Paris: it’s all about the gigapixels

Posted by: fastforward



Photo from The Glastonbury Festival website

The next time you take a stroll around your local electronics store, wander past the camera section and listen to the sales talk. On your trip past the multicoloured Nikons, you’ll probably be followed by a shop assistant who says things like “Now, this one here, it’s a 14 megapixel camera with 5 times optical zoom and facial recognition software - the latest technology.” It seems to be all about megapixels these days. Well, not for much longer.

Gigapixels are the next big thing. Clever event organisers and companies are already making 360 degree panoramas of everything from the fans attending Glastonbury Festival to a packed stadium at a Tri Nations rugby match. Thousands of high resolution photos are taken on a DSLR camera which is placed on a tripod, then spun around until the entire area is photographed. These pictures are then stitched together digitally, creating a gigapixel panorama. Services like GigaTag allow user to tag themselves and their friends in the photo using a Facebook connect tool, so the image is shared with those who attended the event and their friends on the social network.

Besides being pretty cool souvenirs of your weekend activities, these photos are an interesting marketing tool for events and companies, as the fans will return and continue to engage with the photo (and share it with their friends, potential future attendees) long after the event is over. Projects like 360 Cities have constructed gigapixel images of cities like London and Prague which show everything from key landmarks to the people on the streets – and you can zoom in and look around as much as you’d like. Postcards or travel brochures with pictures of the Eiffel Tower just don’t compare to a gigapixel photo of Paris. Some of the photographs are included in services like Google Maps to add far more detail than the standard street view.

Services like Microsoft’s Photosynth allow users to upload their own photos – as long as the photos overlap slightly, the technology is able to stitch them together and create a virtual representation of everything from the view from a boardwalk in the Maldives to London’s Tower Bridge.  You can even upload photos straight from your cell phone using the mobile app.

It might be taxing on bandwidth to upload all those photos, but it could be a valuable tool to attract potential customers (especially in the travel and accommodation industries) or used by journalists to take audiences right where the action is, like during the recent Egyptian uprising.

Of course, the technology can also be used for educational and research purposes. Delicate artefacts can be photographed and examined in detail, and museums and galleries on the other side of the globe can be browsed with nothing more than an internet connection and a mouse. An additional bonus is that these images can be stored online, and thus available anywhere at any time – which could be very useful in the future, especially as many outdoor world heritage sites are degrading and future generations may not have the opportunity to see them in their present condition if this technology was not available.

The Gigapixl Project works with this aim in mind. They developed a camera which takes photos with a resolution of over 4 billion pixels – on to film (the file size would be too large for a digital camera) – which is then scanned digitally. Gigapixel photos of outdoor structures (like Stonehenge and many parts of cities like Rome and Athens) would allow for representations to live on, even while the originals are progressively destroyed by the elements.

Google’s Art Project is collaborating with galleries and museums around the world to capture high resolution images of famous paintings and sculptures, allowing every detail to be preserved digitally for future generations and explored in depth. How I wish there was a gigapixel camera around before the Second World War and the invasion of ancient cities like Alexandria and Constantinople so something would remain of all those lost artworks. But be it by force or the slow decay of time, the fact remains that nothing lasts forever – but a gigapixel image stored safely in the cloud would definitely work better than a time capsule for future generations.

Whether you’re interested in Van Gough’s every brushstroke, researching your next festival trip or looking for a destination for your next holiday, gigapixel technology is the way to go.

I think someone should tell that to the camera sales people.


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