Co.Design

Microsoft Creates A 20-Gigapixel "Where's Waldo?" Of Seattle

With Gigapixel ArtZoom, you can explore a panorama of Seattle, searching for the artists, performers, and eccentrics who give the city its vibrant life.

On a blustery day in October last year, a team of computer vision scientists from the Microsoft Research Interactive Visual Media Group huddled together on a rooftop beneath the Space Needle. They were there to take 2,400 digital photographs of Seattle, which they planned to stitch together into a 20-billion-pixel panorama, using Microsoft's advanced computer imaging technology, then turn into a living Where's Waldo? of Seattle's dynamic art scene.

The project is called Gigapixel ArtZoom, and you can explore it for yourself. Using any web browser, Gigapixel ArtZoom will allow you to swoop and zoom through the streets, parks, and bays of Seattle, on the prowl for a colorful cast of more than 100 eccentric characters who make up the city's art and design community. Once you find artists, ArtZoom makes it easy for you to discover more information about them and their work.

The lead of the Gigapixel ArtZoom project is Microsoft researcher Michael Cohen. An alumnus of Princeton's computer science department, Cohen says his first love was art, not computers. "My first degree was actually in art," Cohen tells Co.Design. "I never in a million years thought then that I would get sucked into the technology world." But Cohen did, which is what makes Microsoft Research a perfect place for his skills.

"The mission of Microsoft Research is to extend the state of the art, and technologists really benefit from seeing the world through artists' eyes," he says. "It challenges us to build better tools and technology. Artists are the pioneers at the edge of what's possible, pulling us into the future." In part, the Gigapixel ArtZoom project is an attempt by Microsoft Research to explore this alchemy between technology and art, encouraging users to find these pioneers in the real world, and to see for themselves where they are pulling us.

The brain that stitched together the 20-gigapixel ArtZoom panorama is Microsoft's Image Composite Editor, or ICE. It's the same technology used by Windows 8.1's panorama feature and Bing Maps to fuse together satellite images into a continuous image of Earth. Just by inserting a set of overlapping photographs into the memory, ICE can extrapolate the 3-D geometry the photos' represent, account for differences in perspective and lens distortion, then stitch them together into a high-resolution panorama that can be zoomed into, down to the smallest detail.

The problem with the gigapixel panoramas that ICE puts together, though, is that while the technology is amazing at capturing the detail of a scene that is otherwise too large to be framed by a single camera lens--say, the urban sprawl of a cityscape--the scale is so large that it often loses the human element, especially at a distance. This is why panoramas often look like they are totally empty of people. Cohen likens this effect to dropping a penny out of an airplane over a city: the chances are statistically very low that a person will be hit by it. Likewise, in a gigapixel panorama, the chances that a pixel you zoom in on will end up being a person are almost zero, yet finding people in a panorama is half the fun. What Cohen's team at Microsoft Research wanted to do was give users a reason to explore and find the people hidden in a panorama.

"The fun in a panorama comes from panning around, zooming in, and discovering things, so when you do see someone, you wonder what they're doing." Cohen says. "So for Gigapixel ArtZoom, we decided to take this beautiful cityscape of Seattle and fill it with people to find: the artists, acrobats, and performers who give this city such a vibrant life."

To create Gigapixel ArtZoom, the team at Microsoft Research climbed the roof of an apartment building in downtown Seattle last October and took 2,368 22-megapixel photographs using a Canon DSLR camera outfitted with a professional-grade 400mm lens. They then took these photos and pumped them into ICE, which in turn spit out a massive 20-gigapixel panorama. To put that in perspective, that image has 10,000 times as many pixels as an image seen on your HDTV. But that was the easy part. Once the panorama had been generated, Cohen's team set itself to the task of photographing people to composite into the finished shot.


Putting a call out to members of Seattle's arts community, Microsoft went back to the apartment complex rooftop and started photographing artists with a telezoom lens. Volunteers were told to be at certain places and scheduled for shooting in five-minute intervals; on-the-ground team members helped coordinate and pose artists for the camera while staying in radio contact with spotters on the tower, who surveyed the scene with binoculars and helped the photographer center the target in his sights, almost like a sniper team.

According to Cohen, what really brought Gigapixel ArtZoom together wasn't the technology or the photography, but the suggestions of the local arts community. "When we asked for artists to volunteer for this thing, we didn't really know what to expect or even really what we wanted from them," says Cohen. "But people came forward with suggestions we never would have imagined."

Acrobats doing tumbles, artists balancing on stacks of law books, performers in flamboyant operatic regalia and even a Michael Jackson Thriller troupe are just some of the strange and surreal sites that can be found in the finished ArtZoom Panorama. There's even a special Easter Egg.

"As we were scouting for locations, someone heard about the project and asked if we'd be willing to help him propose to his partner in the panorama," says Cohen. "So if you look, you can see this guy and his family holding up a big banner with the words 'Will You Marry Me, Bill?' written on it."

The finished Gigapixel ArtZoom panorama will debut this evening at the Seattle Art Museum in front of an audience of around 400 people from the local art, tech, and design communities. At the event, ArtZoom will be explorable using two massive touch-screen monitors provided by Microsoft's Perceptive Pixel display division, as well as printed out as a 24-foot-long panorama hung inside a cylindrical booth that people can step inside. Even this massive canvas, though, will only be big enough to show ArtZoom at 1:1,000th scale. According to Cohen, printing out the finished panorama pixel-for-pixel would require a canvas the size of a large building.

Outside of being an innovative way to explore a dynamic local art community, what Cohen and his team ultimately hopes is that Gigapixel ArtZoom will serve as an example of a new way for people to look at panoramas: not as mere novelties, but as a media tool in themselves that can be used to tell stories. Seen from that perspective, the Where's Waldo? of panoramas could be just the precursor for the sprawling panoramas of tomorrow that explore the story of an entire city and its inhabitants, created by the very "pioneers at the edge of what's possible" that ArtZoom has made its subjects.

You can try Gigapixel ArtZoom for yourself here.

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