Microsoft announced on Thursday three apps for making hyperlapses -- videos that compress the passage of time to make a breathlessly fast-paced version of the original clip.
The company's imaging researchers released two free mobile versions, Microsoft Hyperlapse for Windows Phone and a preview version for Android, Google's operating system for smartphones and other mobile gadgets. And Microsoft is serious enough about the idea that it plans to sell the more sophisticated Hyperlapse Pro for Windows that's a free preview release for now.
The term, in which photos taken at intervals are assembled into a movie that can make clouds flow past like rivers, flowers unfurl like flags and stars wheel across the sky. With the growing processing power of mobile phones and computers, though, hyperlapses can condense a long video into something more exciting and entertaining.
It's an example of what's called computational photography -- the ever-expanding list of ways that computing devices can process video and photos beyond what the image sensor originally captured. Computational photography can correct problems like lens distortion, but it also can push photos and videos well beyond their original limits with things like.
In other words, computational photography can bring fresh verve to photos and videos, helping them stand out from the crowd published on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Google+ and YouTube.
"Microsoft Hyperlapse is definitely part of the computational photography team's journey, and builds on our many years of research in computer vision technologies such as stabilization and image stitching," said Josh Weisberg, a Microsoft program manager overseeing the technology.
Microsoft wasn't the first to embrace hyperlapses. Perhaps most notably, Facebook'sfor iOS in 2014. But the term has been around for years.
Vimeo's first hyperlapse-tagged video was published six years ago, and the genre got a boost from a clever video assembled from countless still photos from Google Maps' Street View.
Different from Instagram
Microsoft's approach differs from Instagram's in a few ways besides being available on Android and Windows Phone instead of Apple's iOS mobile operating system. For one thing, it creates hyperlapses from existing video, where Instagram's Hyperlapse is used to actually shoot the video. That means you can try to speed up videos by a factor as high as 32 times or just use it to stabilize video without speeding it up.
Second, Instagram Hyperlapse uses an iPhone's gyroscope to figure out how a person is wobbling the camera, then compensate by cropping out the outer parts of the video frame. Microsoft Hyperlapse reconstructs the outer portion of individual video frames from other frames in the video.
The result, Weisberg believes, is a way to make videos better.
"The initial idea came from wanting to make first-person videos easier to watch," he said. Microsoft Hyperlapse offers "a technologically advanced way for people to better share their passions, hobbies and adventures with the world."
For an introduction to the products, check the Microsoft Hyperlapse introduction on YouTube.
The preview version of Microsoft Hyperlapse for Android won't run on all devices, though Microsoft plans to add more devices "in the near future." Supported devices today are the Samsung Galaxy S5, S6, S6 Edge and Note 4; the Google Nexus 5 and 6 phones and Nexus 9 tablet; and the HTC One M8 and M9.
The preview version of Hyperlapse Pro will embed a watermark in the video. Microsoft wouldn't yet say how much the final version will cost, when it would arrive or whether the company will continue to offer a free version with watermarked video.
Microsoft is also making the technology available through its Azure cloud-computing service. Hyperlapse for Azure Media Service will let customers use the technology to smooth jerky videos.
The mobile versions of Microsoft Hyperlapse construct hyperlapse videos using a different technique than that employed by the more powerful Hyperlapse Pro.
Hyperlapse Pro analyzes video frames to reconstruct a 3D map of the region where a person carried a camera. In contrast, the mobile versions of the software use a 2D algorithm that's faster to run but doesn't produce video that's as smooth.
With the 3D algorithm in Hyperlapse Pro, slight side-to-side and up-and-down movements of a camera let the algorithm distinguish between foreground and background elements, and the video frames can be processed to track features as they move around the camera's field of view.
The software then plots a smoother 3D track through space and builds each frame of the new video from this virtual perspective. In other words, the hyperlapse video appears to have been taken from points in space that the real camera may never have traveled through. The software patches together imagery from multiple frames.
Thus, though Hyperlapse Pro is based on an original real-world video, the hyperlapse itself is a significant departure from that original video.
"This is one of the main reasons that we can produce such a smooth result," said Matt Uyttendaele, director of Microsoft's Computational Photography Group. "Traditional video stabilization techniques are restricted to using just one input frame for a given output frame."
The 2D algorithm works only with the phone it's running on. The 3D algorithm is more open-ended, but it has a significant constraint: it requires detailed profile information about the camera used. So far, Microsoft mostly supports only a range of GoPro action cameras.
Without the specific camera support, Hyperlapse Pro reverts to a somewhat more powerful version of the more basic algorithm, the company said. Microsoft will support more cameras, but adding that support is a complicated procedure that involves capturing test footage for each lens and camera, at each resolution, frame rate and focal length.
Microsoft is aiming for professionals and enthusiasts who want a new view of the world. So far Hyperlapse Pro is a bare-bones product, with options only for video resolution, speedup factor and a few other parameters. There can be artifacts from the scene-stitching, perspective-shifting technology.
By charging for Hyperlapse Pro, though, Microsoft is implicitly promising to refine the software. It wasn't first to the hyperlapse world, but it's evidently serious about making its mark.