Microsoft opens up Photosynth

Microsoft has made its Photosynth technology easier to use and opened it up for anyone to create their own images, the company planned to announce Thursday.

Photosynth automatically stitches together digital photos -- just a handful or a few hundred -- to create an image that a user can spin around to look at from all angles or zoom in to check out a close-up detail.

A project created in part through a collaboration between Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington, Photosynth was already open to anyone as a tech preview but heavily taxed many systems, resulting in a very slow user experience. Also, users could only view a handful of images and couldn't make their own.

Those shortcomings have changed with this launch, said Alex Daley, group product manager at Microsoft Live Labs. The technology behind Photosynth is now designed to do most of the computing work locally, on a user's computer, with the photos stored remotely on Microsoft servers. That division of labor has made it a much faster experience for end users, Daley said.

The technology behind the new service was developed in part by David Gedye, group manager at Live Labs, who founded the SETI@home project that harnesses unused computer time contributed by individuals to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life.

His experience helped in designing Photosynth to use local computing power. "There's a green story here," Gedye said. "Instead of massive data centers, we're using the available power on your machine."

At Photosynth.com, anyone can view images created by other people and create their own. The creation process is simple, but still takes some time. Users select and upload a group of photos from their computers. The technology takes several minutes, depending on the number of photos, to examine the photos for common components in order to stitch them together into one image.

Users still must download a piece of software that is about 8M bytes in size in order to use Photosynth, Daley said.

Microsoft hopes to add more community sharing features to Photosynth.com in the future. For now, all images are public and people can comment on images. In the future, Microsoft may allow users to create communities and restrict viewing to people in those communities. Also, the front page of the Web site might feature the most popular images in the future. For now, Microsoft has chosen which images to display on the main page.

Users can embed their Photosynth images on other Web sites and send links to them to other people via e-mail. After creating a new Photosynth, people can mark them as copyrighted, protected under the Creative Commons license or public domain. Users can also flag images they think are inappropriate and Microsoft will consider removing them.

The Web site already has many images available for viewing, including some from National Geographic, which has worked with Microsoft over the past couple of months to upload images. Photosynth.com visitors can browse around pictures of iconic international sites such as the Taj Mahal, Hagia Sophia, Machu Picchu and the Sphinx.

Microsoft built Photosynth by combining technology it developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of Washington with technology it acquired from SeaDragon.

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