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.)

The capital of the first century A.D. kingdom of Nabataea, Petra is famous for its many stone structures such as a monumental temple carved with classical facades into rose-colored rock. (See pictures of the "new seven wonders of the world," including Petra.)

With GigaPan images, even remote researchers can "understand spatial relationships between the different components of a landscape in a way that a map can't offer," Straughn added.

"One of the things you can really pick out from these images is the relationship between the living city of Petra and the surrounding necropolis, the city of the dead—all [mixed] into a rich topography. ... "

(See more Petra pictures.)

World's Best Magnifying Glass?

Geologist Ron Schott, of Fort Hays State University in Kansas, has shot over 300 GigaPan pictures, from panoramic landscapes to close-ups depicting minute characteristics of rock.

"You can see things over a wide area at really good detail. You can actually ... make out small little minerals that you'd need a [magnifying glass] to see" in person, Schott said.

Roadcut in Shale Rock Near Wilson Lake, Kansas

Schott also uses GigaPan to look at the big picture—such as of different layers of sedimentary rock. For example, by comparing the rock layers of opposite sides of a fault, he can determine where geological movement has occurred, and to what degree.

In the future, Schott anticipates high-resolution 3-D modeling that may spring from the technology.

"You could shoot a GigaPan of a glacier or a growing lava dome and come back a day later to see exactly how things have changed."

Desktop Conservation

As a ranger at fossil-packed Durlston Country Park in the United Kingdom, Ali Tuckey aims to get the county-administered park's paleontological treasures in front of as many eyes as possible.

The problem is that the fossils are in seaside deposits too dangerous for tourists or schoolchildren.

GigaPan "is not quite being there, but it's coming close," Tuckey said.

Tuckey also hopes to use GigaPan to enlist virtual volunteers.

For example, he said, "to manage [our grassland habitat] successfully, we have to know the numbers and density of different wildflowers, and we have to keep monitoring, to see the impact we're having with grazing or cutting."

GigaPan images could help many hands make light work of these types of environmental-monitoring tasks, whether at threatened coral reefs, in vanishing rain forests, or on Durlston's grasslands.

"With a great shot of a meadow, people could actually zoom in and count the numbers and varieties of different wildflowers," Tuckey said.

"If we make these astonishing images available on the Web, people could potentially log on at home and do actual research. And it doesn't matter if they are in Birmingham or Singapore."

GigaPan panoramas courtesy Ian Straughn (Petra) and Ron Schott (rock layers).

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