Billion-Pixel Image Tool Probes Science Mysteries

Ultra-zoomable GigaPan gives experts "incredible" new perspective.

Neolithic rock art near Jubbah, Saudi Arabia. GigaPan by Richard T. Bryant

GigaPan—the ultra-zoomable imaging technology—is enabling novel research in archaeology, zoology, and many other scientific fields, experts said this week.

The system stitches thousands of closeup images together into panoramas of thousand-megapixel resolution, which are hosted at the Gigapan website and viewable from anywhere in the world.

Robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh's CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University first created the technology, which uses a robotic camera mount, a software package, and a digital camera.

The lab initially received support from NASA's Ames Intelligent Robotics Group and Google to develop the system for Mars-bound rovers.

But in recent years, the team has also crafted an affordable (as low as $300) GigaPan tool and put it in the hands of scientists.

GigaPan workshops have since trained dozens of experts in diverse fields, including many who attended the Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging for Science, held at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh from November 11 to 13.

Gigapan's many applications make rich data available for collaboration by disparate teams, Michael Sims, of NASA's Ames Research Center, told National Geographic News at the conference.

"These are very large images, and if you try to display them on a standard system it would crunch to a halt," Sims said.

"How does one get such an image from a central location to a [university] or anywhere else with modest bandwidth, and how can we get that image displayed in a way that works? GigaPan is a great solution to those problems."

Gigapan: Down to an Art

For instance, rock-art expert Sandra Olsen took GigaPan to Saudia Arabia to document that nation's outstanding examples of ancient petroglyphs with the help of photographer Richard T. Bryant.

Working with the Saudi Ministry of Education, Olsen and her team are permanently documenting some of the world's most impressive rock art online. (See a Gigapan of rock art in France.)

Petroglyphs are often found in remote or inaccessible areas, but GigaPan technology allows anyone to view them online with unprecedented detail.

Olsen, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, explained that the images also give her a scientific edge that can sometimes be better than actually being on site.

"You can take a composite image of an entire cliff face and zoom in on a single grain of sand," she said.

"You can see incredible details. It's a fantastic tool for spatial analysis. You can see which images overlie others and see the relationships between scenes—even while sitting in your own office."

GigaPan can also reveal important details that field research simply doesn't allow, she noted. For instance, Gigapan gave Olsen a new perspective on an unfinished petroglyph of a wild ass—a type of donkey—that was stopped and restarted at various times throughout prehistory.

"If you want to study how a petroglyph was made, sometimes there is an advantage to coming across images that were stopped in mid-creation," she said. "That's something that I didn’t observe initially because our time at the site was limited, and I didn't have time to do that kind of analysis. Instead I'm doing it on the computer."

Gigapan Keeps Beekeepers Busy

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a Penn State University entomologist, is using GigaPan as a weapon in the fight against colony collapse disorder, which imperils bees worldwide.

A typical beehive is a box with a series of ten removable "frames" on which the bees construct honeycombs with thousands of individual wax cells. These frames make fantastic subjects for GigiPan images of beehives.

"Usually while diagnosing disease, you look at an overall view of the whole colony, as well as looking in the individual cells," vanEngelsdorp said.

"For the first time, in one image, you can look at a frame-level view and see symptoms of disease and also look into those individual cells, which is incredible," he said.

"It allows beekeepers to search over the frame and look for different things both normal and unhealthy," he added.

In 2011, vanEngelsdorp hopes to take the technology a step further as a diagnostic tool by removing and imaging frames weekly, so that experts can watch in detail as a bee colony expands and collapses.

"It's a tool for beekeepers," he said. "It allows them to look at colonies at all stages of symptoms and say, retrospectively, whether they are seeing early or late stages of disease, and see how diseases can look as they get more advanced."

Virtual Bug Sharing

For Andrew Deans, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, GigaPan is a way to share the university insect museum's collection of some 1.5 million insects with scholars around the world.