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Researchers in Microsoft’s Interactive Visual Media Group have unveiled a software application that creates a panoramic, four-gigapixel image out of hundreds of smaller pictures, a technology that could be integrated into Windows Live Local to provide more visually accurate and interactive navigation for online maps.

The panorama shot, demonstrated at the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Road Show in Mountain View, CA, this week, was composed of about 750 smaller digital images, captured by an off-the-shelf digital camera mounted atop a building in Seattle. Then the composite pictures were stitched together almost seamlessly by automated software developed by Microsoft researchers.

This big picture illustrated technology that’s part of ongoing work by the software giant to expand its online mapping platform, Windows Live Local, currently in its beta (or testing) phase. Live Local already provides traditional street maps and top-down views culled from satellites images for almost all of the United States, as well as actual photos of a handful of cities that allow viewers to look at buildings from an angled perspective – what Microsoft refers to as “Bird’s Eye” images.

The company plans to take the image-processing techniques demonstrated in these panoramas and apply them to the Bird’s Eye images, which are taken from planes flying at low altitudes over cities. This would allow future versions of Live Local to offer images stitched together for easier navigation, says Matt Uyttendaele, a Microsoft researcher who worked on the panorama project. Currently, Live Local offers only the angled view for a small part of the city at a time; in order to look beyond that view, another picture must be loaded into the browser.

Within the past year, competition for the best online mapping application has increased between Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo (see “Mapmaking at Microsoft”). Many experts believe that the Bird’s Eye images distinguish Microsoft maps from others by providing a more natural view of a city. Now panoramic views, such as those taken by the Microsoft researchers, could be even more useful for mapping purposes because multiple cameras placed on multiple buildings could provide more views of site, says Rick Bobbit, founder of GeoSpatial Experts, a Thorton, CO-based company. By placing cameras all around a city atop buildings, “you could get a whole bunch of different angles, and that would be useful,” he says.

That’s in stark contrast to Google’s online mapping tool, for instance, which offers street maps, top-down satellite images, and a view that combines the two. But satellite images mostly provide information about the tops of buildings and their geometries, while Microsoft’s angled view offers pictures of storefronts or geographic nuances that a satellite can miss. The close-up, angled view can be more useful for actually navigating in an unfamiliar area, Bobbit says.

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