The old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” may have been true in Roman times, but that’s definitely not the case in the twenty-first century. That’s thanks to a new technology system dubbed PhotoCity, developed by computer science researchers at Cornell University and the University of Washington.
According to the researchers, PhotoCity will “blend teamwork and collaboration with powerful graphic algorithms to create three-dimensional renderings of buildings, neighborhoods, and eventually entire cities.”
This new photo technology originally stemmed from already-existing research and work completed by Noah Snavely, a computer scientist at Cornell University who was working on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Washington at the time. Snavely developed the set of algorithms that is capable of generating three-dimensional models from otherwise unstructured two-dimensional photos.
Originally, the project was slated to be called Photo Tourism, but that technology has since been sold to, and commercialized, by Microsoft. Since the handover, the software giant has also renamed the technology and now offers it under the pseudonym Photosynth, which is a less sophisticated service than PhotoCity that enables users to upload collections of their personal photos that in turn, can be viewed in a shaky, three-dimensional montage with the help of a web browser.
Essentially, Photosynth takes photos, mashes them together, and recreates a less than perfect 3D scene that users can view and move around in. The one major up side of Photosynth, which is much less technologically savvy that PhotoCity, is that it focuses on more than just buildings as PhotoCity does. With Photosynth, users can explore details of multiple places, locations, objects, and events unlike any other media currently available (for free). The program even allows users to see their photos as videos, which they can stop at any point and move around in, as well as zoom into portions in order to check out the smallest details. Photosynth also allows users to utilize their photo gallery so that they can see the spatial relation between their multiple photos.
Photosynth, though an interesting amateur service, limits its users to using dozens or hundreds of photos. The researchers from PhotoCity, on the other hand, wanted to scale their technology so that it could handle tens of thousands or possibly millions of photos. The researchers also intend to continue using computer processing power to assist in transforming the photos into 100 percent authentic three-dimensional images (referred to as a “dense point cloud” in tech speak), unlike Photosynth’s images, which aren’t actually 3D.
How PhotoCity Works
PhotoCity is characterized as visualization technology capable of quickly processing very large numbers of digital photos pertaining to a single subject, such as a building and its surrounding landscape. In turn the system creates a captivating, almost ghostly three-dimensional image that showcases the building in its entirety.
In order to do this, the computer science researchers responsible for the system created a three-stage set of algorithms that begins the process by first starting what’s referred to as a sparse point cloud using the photos of the object. Then, the system renders the collection of photos as a denser, single image, capturing almost all of the original surface texture featured on the object in the photographs. In the third and final step, the system renders the single image into three dimensions, giving it an incredibly realistic appearance on the screen.
Though there’s a lot of buzz surrounding PhotoCity as is, the researchers are still working to improve the image quality and the system’s rendering capabilities. To do this, the researchers are currently trying to integrate their computing system with an online social game that enables competing online teams to add much- needed images in hopes of improving the quality of the visual models that have already been worked on.
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