Hiding new technology in plain sight

If I’m giving a private demo of an advanced technology or piece of software that Microsoft is cooking up, I often encounter the response, “Yeah, but we’ll probably never see this released, will we?”

There’s a perception, dating from earlier days of interminable vaporware projects and over-hyped research, that Microsoft’s advanced efforts don’t make it into their products – or more likely, get stripped of features and dumbed-down to fit into a different lowest-common-denominator product.

Here’s one that didn’t get that treatment: Photosynth. When I was in government and saw last year’s TED Conference demo of this remarkable immersive visualization software, I was amazed – and I admit I thought to myself, that will never see the light of day at Microsoft.  Wrong: it is being released today, for free, worldwide.

One of my first friends at Microsoft, Gary Flake – another recent recruit to the company who leads the Live Labs team – explains in an interview today this new rationale:

The decision to release an advanced new technology first in the form of a free consumer service marks something of a break with Microsoft’s past. Traditionally, the company would have first used the technology to create new services for big corporate users, said Mr Flake. Instead, by opening it up, it hoped to expand the potential reach of the technology rapidly before narrowing in on any one commercial application, he added.

Financial Times, “Microsoft Unveils Fruits of Online Shakeup,” Aug. 21, 2008

Best of all, the Photosynth release is just an early example of what will be many more . And it’s not the first one – I’ve been a big fan of Popfly, which also has been released, for free use, with no commercial big-bang play, but a real groundswell of adoption because it’s powerful and cool.

There are other projects which are being slated for the same treatment; I started internally recommending one this week myself.  I’ll keep you posted.

From the Photosynth FAQ:

Q:  What is Photosynth? 

A: Photosynth is an entirely new visual medium. Photosynth analyzes a set of photos of a place or an object for similarities each other, and uses that data to estimate where a photo was taken and build a model of the subject. It then re-creates the environment and uses that as a canvas on which to display the photos.  Photosynth is available for free at photosynth.com, where you can explore creations from users around the world and build synths of your own … with nothing more than a few dozen photos of a place or object.

Q: How does Photosynth work?

A: Photosynth experience begins with nothing more than a bunch of digital photos. They might all have been taken by one person, or they might be a mixture of images from many different cameras, shooting conditions, dates, times of day, resolutions, and so on.

Each photo is processed by computer vision algorithms to extract hundreds of distinctive features, like the corner of a window frame or a door handle. Photos that share features are then linked together in a web. When the same feature is found in multiple images, its 3D position can be calculated. It’s similar to depth perception – what your brain does to perceive the 3D positions of things in your field of view based on their images in both of your eyes. Photosynth’s 3D model is just the cloud of points showing where those features are in space.

Your brain knows that your eyes are about two inches apart. But when Photosynth does its magic, it doesn’t know where the cameras were, or which way they were pointing. Fortunately, when there are many cameras, and many features in common, the algorithms behind Photosynth can figure out not only where the features are in 3D, but where all of the cameras would have to have been, and which way they were aimed, consistent with the features they “saw”.

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One Response

  1. You have done a nice job .I really thanks full to you after learning abut the Photosynth. Specially the FAQ you have mentioned are very help to know that what Photosynth is and what is the working process of Photosynth. It’s too interesting.

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