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The Universe in Your Hands

How do you navigate a billion pixels? With a Kinect, a gigantic screen, and this student-made gesture system.
September 15, 2011

Sometimes, there’s no such thing as too much visual information. An astronomer, for instance, parsing images of distant galaxies, will never complain about a picture that is too high-resolution. Neither will a microbiologist, who may need to zoom into the microscopic universe to learn more about what makes a cell work, or fail. We have the technology to take massively high resolution images today–so-called gigapixel images, those containing a billion or more pixels–but what we’ve lacked, until now, was a suitable and intuitive way to navigate those images.

Samuel Cox, a masters student in digital imaging at Lincoln University, offers what may be a solution, reports The Engineer. Cox isn’t an astronomer or a biomedical student, but the system he devised might someday apply to those fields. Cox, an artist first and foremost, decided he wanted a more interactive way to experience photography. He explored London with a 16-megapixel DSLR camera. Using a robotic tripod, he would take some 300 photographs per scene, in a precise and grid-like fashion, overlapping them by about 30 percent. The whole process would take 45 minutes for each scene. Then Cox would use software to merge those smaller images into one massive one.

Megapixel panoramas like these are nothing new, of course; what is somewhat novel, however, is the means of experiencing them that Cox then created. He made a Microsoft Kinect hack that enabled viewers to swipe and zoom their way through the richly detailed images. “I used a Kinect for the depth tracking,” Cox told PCWorld. “No other webcam device really offers that technical ability.”

Various metaphors come to mind, viewing a video Cox made of people interacting with his exhibition. (Called GigaLinc, it was recently on display and open to the public in London. You can see some of the photographs that formed part of the project here.) It’s like a conductor standing in front of a photographic orchestra. Or it’s like viewing the largest Where’s Waldo? spread with the world’s most high-tech magnifying glass. Or it’s like Antonioni’s Blow-Up for a digital age. See for yourself:

Gigalinc - Immersive Photography from Sam Cox on Vimeo.

Whatever simile you choose, it’s clear that Cox seems to be onto something–no pun intended–big. And while it may not be the first Kinect hack that can give viewers the feeling of having the universe in their hands, it’s the first I’ve seen that has been made so simple and intuitive that uninitiated non-specialists could waltz in and set to work. As massive images become more commonplace, and as it grows more clear that the bottleneck in our understanding them has to do with how we navigate them, we can expect to see novel set-ups like Cox’s to become something of the norm.

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