Carnegie Mellon introduces Gigapan device

Carnegie Mellon unveiled a new robotic camera system called the “Gigapan” last Wednesday, and it is already changing the way people view the world through photographs.

Gigapan was developed during a two-year partnership between scientists from Carnegie Mellon and NASA’s Ames Research Center. “There’s been very close collaboration,” said Laura Tomokiyo, project scientist of the Gigapan at Carnegie Mellon.

“It’s been wonderful to work with them. NASA Ames as an organization has been extremely supportive of Gigapan and, during the project’s time, has contributed a lot. For example, we’ve had a couple of interns from NASA that are contributing to this project.”

The project also received assistance from Google for funding and Charmed Labs LLC for the design and production of Gigapan.

The team plans to commercialize the product for consumers and introduce the product overseas.

The Gigapan camera system is designed to be attached to a digital camera, and it allows the camera to capture multibillion-pixel panoramic images that can be uploaded to the Internet. Viewers can interact with the photos on the Internet.

Gigapan is able to turn any digital camera into a personal, panoramic camera by using its tripod-like mount to capture numerous images that overlap one another.

Once the images are captured, Gigapan utilizes a special software that organizes all of the images into a grid, allowing it to compress and stitch together the images to create one, multibillion pixel image.

The Gigapan has already been used for a variety of purposes. The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism, for instance, used the Gigapan to take pictures of Civil War sites.

“In a way this is a new organizational medium and it’s a new media,” stated Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor in the School of Computer Science’s Robotics Institute, in a Carnegie Mellon press release.

Nourbakhsh described the Gigapan as a way of exchanging information in the “community sense.”

Developers of the Gigapan have also been in discussion with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to begin a project for educating children from different parts of the world about each other’s cultures through the panoramic abilities of the Gigapan. This particular project is already underway, and it promises to connect children from areas such as Pittsburgh, South Africa, Trinidad, and Tobago.

“Imagery has the power to educate what you can’t do with words,” Tomokiyo said.

“You can cross cultural boundaries, you can cross linguistic boundaries; I think our challenge is to figure how to put it in the hands of the people who need it. We want to give a voice to children in rural communities in Africa and urban communities in Southeast Asia to tell their stories and to share their stories with each other — and along the way, strengthening their own sense of identity by communicating through imagery.”

The use of the Gigapan is also expected to improve technical literacy among the public by introducing Robot250, a robotics program that teaches its participants how to build customized robots. This program is due to appear as a summer program in Carnegie Mellon by 2008.

“There are a number of other applications [for Gigapan],” Tomokiyo said. “People are constantly coming to us with different ideas. Looking at things like safety in a lab setting, for example, you could use the Gigapan to assess the aftermath of an accident and be able to go back and look at the things you forgot to look at before.”

In addition, the Gigapan team has started beta testing procedures of the Gigapan website, which will allow users to explore the detailed images in a manner similar to Google Earth. This means that users will be able to zoom in on concentrated parts of a large image (for example, an image of a landscape) with little sacrifice of quality.

The website is currently available to the public and offers free subscription for its services.

“We would be doing the same as a number of other projects if, in fact, we were making such professional panoramas and putting them on the web — there are people who do that,” stated Nourbakhsh, “but … we want anybody to be able to do this and so we take it two steps further.”

Aside from the educational prospects, the Gigapan also has use in the sciences. Developers plan to collaborate with the Fine Foundation of Pittsburgh to provide Gigapans to scientists in various fields.

“We’re not interested in becoming just another photo-sharing site,” stated Nourbakhsh.