Crowdsourcing photosynth

January 31, 2009

I wrote about Photosynth when it first came out as a plugin back in August 2007.Then, I wasn’t sure, and felt that it was a technology looking for a reason. Since then, Microsoft have done a few very, very cool things with it. The most important of these is that anyone can now create Photosynths (essentially, think image stitching, but in all dimensions..).

All you have to do is go to the Photosynth site, download the app and chuck some photos at it. It munges away for a bit and then after a bit uploads them all to the Photosynth site and gives you a link. It helps very much when you’re taking the photos to think about the fact that you want them to be connected: they obviously have to be the same scene, and I’ve found that standing reasonably still and taking around you tends to work reasonably well.

A “good synth” (the software tells you how “synthy” your selection is once it’s uploaded it – presumably a measure of how well it has managed to stitch stuff together) is pretty satisfying, although there are some obviously winning features which are missing. The single most obvious one of these is that you can’t add links or hotspots to the synth you create. For museums particularly, I think this’ll be a problem.

I did a synth a while back of the Boxkite at Bristol Museum. It’s a nice object to use (or so I thought) – it’s up in the rafters and you can walk all around it, taking photos from 360 degrees. As it happens, the result is pretty good, but not great. I’m wondering whether the software might have confused one side of the object from the other. Either way, it gives an insight into how museums could start using Photosynth to enhance collections online. More interestingly, perhaps (given the fair size of the Photosynth plugin), it could be used in-gallery (maybe with a Microsoft Surface..) to let audiences really engage with objects. Have a poke around the Photosynth site to get a feel for other museum stuff.

Extending Photosynth a bit further is what this post is all about, though.

When I saw the astonishing CNN Photosynth from Obama’s Inaugeration I started thinking about how else you could use it to enhance online experiences. I had what I thought at the time was an original idea (looking now I realise that Nick Poole had commented on my original post suggesting exactly this!) – how about using Flickr as a source for building a Photosynth?

Apollo 10 Command Module

Apollo 10 Command Module - thanks to Gaetan Lee

I needed an iconic object that would have been Creative Commons licensed on Flickr. Apollo 10 turned out to be a good one – I ran a search on Flickr and found 40 CC photos I could use, all taken in the Making the Modern World gallery of the Science Museum, my old stomping ground.

There’s no API I’m aware of for Photosynth yet. This is another missing trick – imagine if you could step straigt from Flickr to a 3D synthed view of any search… – so for my experiment I had to download the entire set of search results. For this, I used a cunning app called Downloadr, which lets you automatically download all Flickr pics which match a certain search. Then it was just a matter of re-uploading the images via Photosynth.

The result is here. Given that this is entirely made up of images taken at completely different times and by different people, I think it works pretty well. The crowd sourcing element adds a lot to Photosynth, I think. It’s still a shame that it isn’t possible to add links or otherwise play with the resulting synth – I think it’d add a lot.

Let me know if you think of other objects that could be synthed in this way and I’ll give it a go…

8 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing photosynth

  1. We were thinking of using something like Photosynth for some iconic objects in time for the Science Museum’s centenary, but the plug-in and platform requirements (and limited resources) meant it would be of limited use. Crowd-sourcing might help cos we wouldn’t need to invest resources and could be fun for those that can view it, but I’d probably still rather find a platform-neutral solution as a permanent thing.

  2. Yeah, I agree that Photosynth atm isn’t ready for mainstream use (big plugin size, not much penetration) – that’s why I suggested it would be good on-gallery.

    Just had a quick poke around thinking there might be a converter from Photosynth (and now Silverlight, I see on my Mac..) to Flash. There isn’t such a thing and not knowing much about the underlying technology, may never be.

    A Flash stitcher would be nice. This would obviously not be exactly Open Source, but with big enough penetration to make that immaterial (IMO, anyway..)

  3. Alain Depocas . com » Blog Archive » Photographie augmentée : Photosynth

  4. Hi – we recently updated the site, now the view page uses a Silverlight version of the viewer which will allow more people to view synths (also mac users) as long as they have Silverlight installed. We also just added a highlight feature so that you can allow people to easily navigate to specific photos in the synth, they are really easy to add to your synths (when you are logged in go to view your synth and you will see an edit button that lets you add highlight), see this synth for an example of how it can be used:

  5. Mark, cheers for that. That’s a really nice improvement, especially for galleries and museums. Thanks for getting in touch.

  6. Wow, I just came across this post. That’s truly fantastic. I’ve used PhotoSynth, but I’ve never imported my own content. Has this improved at all?

    Is there any way you can have it generate a solid higher pixelcount photo? I’d love to be able to take a lot of photos, and have them spliced together perfectly, similar to creating panoramas. But it seems to me that PhotoSynth might actually do a better job since it doesn’t limit itself to left+right, or up+down, but actually in all directions.

    Would love to hear about some success stories…


  7. @Kevin – thanks for commenting. I haven’t noticed any recent updates to Photosynth such as being able to tag or label photos in the synths, but I may have missed it. In terms of adding more pictures, again, not sure.

    If you’re interested in panoramas or hi-res stuff, check out the latest on

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