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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Robot's camera opens up panoramic shots to close scrutiny

Robot's camera opens up panoramic shots to close scrutiny
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A digital camera attached to the Gigapan robot platform captured this panoramic photograph by Randy Sargent of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, park and bay, incorporating about 200 images.
Click photo for larger image.

Digital cameras produce photographs electronically with high resolution. Most people already know that.

But a robot, expected to cost $200 or less, will turn those little silver boxes into powerful image-makers that belie their size. And the owner won't even have to point and shoot.

The Gigapan robot platform developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the NASA Ames Intelligent Robot Group promises to transform Clark Kent cameras into Super-cams. The project is part of the group's Global Connection Project.

A closer look at Randy Sargent's photo finds a sign surrounded by people. Because it is made of multiple photographs taken over time, some figures appear to be incomplete. An even closer view reveals the lettering on the sign.
Click photo for larger image.
With a digital camera attached, the robot clicks snapshots that a software program then puts in ordered configuration to produce a panoramic tapestry. The result is a grand, scenic shot that also allows exploration deep into the photograph to reveal startling detail.

By providing both extremes -- big vistas and riveting detail -- the Gigapan represents the holy grail of photography.

Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics at CMU and head of its robotics master's program, said the Gigapan robot he helped develop takes as many as 300 photographs in 10 minutes to a half hour with any digital camera adjusted to the optical zoom setting. Software the team developed patches the photographs together in quilt-like fashion to create panoramic but highly detailed shots.

Gigapan photographs can be viewed on the new Web site,, that's being developed by CMU, NASA and Deeplocal of Pittsburgh. That site will become the place where people can share Gigapans once the robot is available for sale.

"Pictures are huge, so we need a special Web site dedicated to Gigapans," Dr. Nourbakhsh said.

The new visual medium could change the way people use cameras and enjoy photographs.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics at CMU and head of its robotics master's program, talks about the Gigapan robot he helped to produce.
Click photo for larger image.
"Obviously this picture is not something just to gaze at," he said. "It's something you can go inside and discover -- and discoveries are waiting to be found."

The term "Gigapan" uses the root word, "Giga," which is the Greek root for "gigantic" that's been adopted by the computer world to describe billions of bytes or pixels. "Pan" refers to panorama. The term "Gigapan" describes both robot and the photos it produces.

Its image-making potential is limited only by the user's imagination.

The Gigapan allows scientific, geographic and cultural exploration of regions. It permits one to see the sights, view architecture or study biodiversity.

Police could use it to record and study crime scenes. The new Web site includes a Gigapan of the Grand Canyon, but one also can zoom inside to see waves in the Colorado River and rock layers in sheer walls. Dr. Nourbakhsh said he even spotted a coyote.

Zooming into a Gigapan with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, one can see the 45-mph speed-limit sign on the bridge, details of bridge cables and people crossing the span.

A Gigapan of a Guatemalan flea market with buildings and mountains in the background also allows viewers to see skeins of yarn, fruit and vegetables, as well as what people are wearing and their expressions. Visible are stripes on men's hats and Guatemalan license plates.

It's a ready lesson in Guatemalan life and culture and fits in with the group's desire to create a global neighborhood.

"It generates conversation," Dr. Nourbakhsh said. "It creates a whole different world. This will give birth to a whole new community."

A new entry on features the Dublin Castle in Ireland and close-ups of stained glass windows and architectural detail that include gargoyles. It shows the potential of Gigapans to serve as an educational tool to study architecture, Dr. Nourbakhsh said.

The state also is preparing to use Gigapan technology to boost tourism.

Gigapans of Civil War trails will be placed on a Web site to provide photographs of monuments and allow people to see their placement and read their inscriptions.

Already BBC's "The World" includes Gigapans on its Web site,, to provide listeners with detailed visuals.

Gigapans also could be used for disaster rescue, Dr. Nourbakhsh said. One example is to use the technology to survey damaged buildings after earthquakes.

The Gigapan idea originated with Randy Sargent, formerly of NASA and now a CMU faculty member based in California. He, Dr. Nourbakhsh and their research team developed an earlier version of the imaging technology for the Mars Exploration Rovers that NASA used to explore panoramic images of the Martian surface.

That success inspired them to develop the technology for use on earth.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
The Gigapan robot platform shown with a mounted digital camera was developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the NASA Ames Intelligent Robot Group. The robot takes up to 300 photos in 10 to 30 minutes. Software then "quilts" them together, resulting in a panoramic scene that can be zoomed for amazing detail.
Click photo for larger image.
The technology accommodates almost any digital camera, regardless of its resolution. With an optical zoom, cameras can produce Gigapans as large as 30 billion pixels. Dr. Nourbakhsh said the browsing software at will allow people to explore, annotate and share their photographs.

"This will change the rules for what photography can be used for," Dr. Nourbakhsh said. "These are pictures with massive detail."

As digital camera resolution improves, so will Gigapans and their uses. The team also has produced a time-lapse version for scientific and educational use. One example would be to take a photo every half-hour of a bird's nest.

Instructions on how to purchase the robots or build them will be available at the Web site as early as March.

"Hopefully it will sell out fast, with 10,000 people taking pictures and sharing them with each other," he said.

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