Billion-Pixel Pictures Allow Ultra-Zooming for Science

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2009

 
Great Temple Excavation at Petra, Jordan

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what's a thousand-megapixel picture worth?

Such "gigapixel" pictures allow viewers to zoom in from say, a panoramic view of President Obama's inauguration to the solemn expression on his face—as in one of the new technology's most famous applications.

For scientists—many of whom gathered in Pittsburgh last week for training in new gigapixel technology—these ultra-zoomable images are becoming tools to improve the study of archaeology, geology, biology, and more.

GigaPan Tech: How It Works

Developed by GigaPan systems, a for-profit company, the new GigaPan system allows users to create these superhigh-resolution panoramas with ordinary digital cameras.

With camera attached, a robotic GigaPan tripod systematically photographs a scene with thousands of close-up images, which are later stitched together with proprietary software.

A non-profit lab, the Global Connection Project (started by Carnegie Mellon, NASA, Google, and the National Geographic Society) coordinates GigaPan outreach, education, and science work. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

The technology was first developed for the NASA rovers on Mars, but all along, scientists at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University had hoped to put GigaPan into as many hands as possible. Some current systems sell for under U.S. $400.

Conferences like last week's are designed to help "take the best scientists and have them essentially chart a course for this new tool," said organizer Illah Nourbakhsh, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor. Already, attendees of previous seminars are putting the technology to work.

Petra: Seeing the Big Picture

Ian Straughn, a postdoctoral archaeology fellow at Brown University, is using GigaPan to explore one of the world's great wonders—Jordan's ancient, ruined city of Petra—where the images allow him visualize the site's larger landscape. (See zoomable Petra GigaPan picture at top.)

Continued on Next Page >>


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