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What It Might Become
Microsoft’s work on Photosynth exemplifies the company’s strategy for the 100-person-strong Live Labs. Part Web-based skunk works, part recruiting ground for propeller-heads for whom the corporate parent is not a good fit, Live Labs aims in part to “challenge what people think Microsoft is all about,” says Gary Flake, a 40-year-old technical fellow who is the lab’s founder and director. Its more immediate aim is to bring Web technologies to market.

Flake’s pitch about the Live Labs culture is an energetic one, as he speaks about his efforts to bridge research science and product engineering. Flake, who has worked for numerous research organizations, including the NEC Research Institute and Yahoo Research Labs, which he founded and also ran, describes this as an industry-wide challenge. At Live Labs, “we have a deliberate hedge portfolio,” he explains. “We have a very interesting mix,” encompassing “40 different projects.”

Flake is unwilling to discuss many of his projects in detail, but he brims with excitement about his mandate to “to bring in more DNA” in the way of raw talent. “We want to create and advance the state of Internet products and services,” he says, but he also speaks passionately about Live Labs employees as “human Rosetta stones” who can serve as translators in an R&D world where engineers and scientists often, in effect, speak different languages.

The Photosynth project, Flake says, epitomizes the kind of success he wants to champion through his efforts to overcome the traditional divide between science and product engineering. It “represents a serious advancement of the state of the art.”

Currently, Photosynth can be seen only in an online demo, but Agüera y Arcas’s team hopes to release it by the end of the year. What somebody who acquires it can actually do with it remains to be seen. Point clouds can be made from as few as two or three images, so one can imagine users creating relatively unsophisticated synths of their own photography–of, say, a family trip to Mount Rushmore. (Of course, people who have Photosynth might begin to shoot many more pictures of a given place, in the interest of being able to make a rich synth later.) But it could also be that users will tap into online libraries of photos–which will probably have to be downloaded to a local computer–to create their own synths of highly photographed sites.

Still, Photosynth is mostly promise with little proof. Technical questions abound as to how easy it will be to use and what, exactly, its capabilities will be. Also, despite the Linux origins of Photo Tourism, Photosynth will remain Windows only for the foreseeable future.

And for all Photosynth’s immediate appeal, its applications, too, remain unclear. The world doesn’t need another image browser, even a groundbreaking one. It seems even more unlikely that users would pay for Photosynth in its current form. In the meantime, Photosynth’s fortunes will depend on whether it can build a broad-based community of users. Will it take on new uses for those who embrace it, as Google Earth has done? More important, will ­Microsoft release a final product sufficiently open that such a community can seek uses different from those initially intended?

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Credit: Courtesy of Microsoft Live Labs

Tagged: Computing

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