Services & Software

Microsoft launches 3D wonder Photosynth for consumers

Microsoft finally takes Photosynth from being a neat-looking technology demo to a playground for amateur photographers to build incredible 3D works.

Photosynth, a technology demo from Microsoft Live Labs, has graduated from its "ooh, that's pretty" status to being a viable Web service for consumers.

The technology, which takes a grouping of photographs and stitches them into a faux 3D environment, can now be implemented with photos you've taken on your digital camera or mobile phone, and converted right on your computer. Previously, the process of stitching these photos together took weeks of processing on specially configured server arrays. With its latest version, Microsoft has managed to shrink that into around the time it takes to upload your photos.

Microsoft is giving users 20GB of online storage for their Photosynth collections. Photosynth product manager Joshua Edwards tells me this can easily fit 60 or more "synths" made up of around 150 to 200 photographs apiece--the higher end of what's recommended for what Edwards calls an optimum or "synthy" experience. Users who are making really neat collections will be granted additional space.

I spent the past few days building my own Photosynths and finally managed to get the knack for how to shoot correctly by the third one. While Microsoft has largely pushed it as a way to build jaw-dropping 3D-like environments, I'd argue to say it's a far simpler way to take super detailed shots of a wall or single room without breaking the bank on a high megapixel SLR. That said, Photosynth will take any resolution of photos you throw at it.

This synth I created uses close to 300 photos, although you can make ones with many less. Part of the creation process involves learning how to take photos for it to recognize how objects relate to one another. CNET Networks/Josh Lowensohn

One of the most impressive parts of Photosynth is how damn fast it is. Over a decent broadband connection you'll immediately see large thumbnails that quickly begin to sharpen as data fills in the missing pixels. You can continue to zoom into these areas and they'll sharpen up even more on some of the super high-resolution shots.

The streaming and rendering technology behind Photosynth is Seadragon, another project from the Microsoft Live Labs universe. Users have always had to download a special Seadragon-based plug-in to view other people's synths. The new twist with the latest plug-in now comes with a desktop uploader that can be used to add your own collection to the Photosynth universe. This runs with complete autonomy from your browser, so you don't have to worry about it stopping if you close out your browser. It also works in both IE 7 and Firefox 3, making it cross-platform--at least for Microsoft. If you're a Mac user looking to get your hands on some Photosynth action you'll have to keep waiting. The focus on Photosynth will remain on the PC for the time being.

One thing that's missing from this version of Photosynth is a way to synth pre-existing photo collections, or sets of photos taken from community sites. This is the most useful for things like common landmarks, and is clearly something that can be done with the right photo database--something we saw in that really nifty video from Siggraph last week. In the case of Photosynth, once you've uploaded a batch of photos you can't simply upload more to it later. Gary Flake, who heads up Microsoft's Live Labs, says this is something that's coming later on down the road. For now, you'll just have to plan ahead.

Note: We've got a video coming up soon with Flake chatting about the technology behind Photosynth. In the meantime, if you want to explore my synth of the outside of the CBS Interactive offices in downtown San Francisco, go here.

Update: Here's the video.

Update 2: Photosynth has been up and down since early Thursday morning. You can check for the status of it on the Live Labs blog.

Update 3: Site's back up.