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Stressed out? Virtual nature via Microsoft’s new 3D Photosynth will soothe you

Dec 17, 20136 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

If the holidays have you stressed, it's a proven fact that virtual nature is good for your psychological well-being; let Microsoft’s new 3D photo-stitched synths of nature soothe you.

Microsoft suffered a serious loss as one of its “star” engineer and software designers, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, left the Redmond giant to work for its rival Google. He had worked at Microsoft since 2006, developing augmented reality, Bing Maps, wearable computing and Photosynth. Earlier this year at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Agüera y Arcas gave a sneak peek of the new Photosynth technology. The Photosynth-derived 360 panorama capture of Edinburgh Castle walk was shot on a mobile phone and was the “synth that got the most oohs and aaahs from the crowd.”

Just last week, Microsoft unveiled a technical preview of its third-generation Photosynth photo-stitching app; the results of the interactive 3D synths are stunning, appearing more like a video than a collection of photos. Because the holidays often cause people to be stressed out, it seems like a good time to look at Microsoft’s newest Photosynth tech.

Technology can be harnessed to produce “virtual nature;” scientists have proven [pdf] that being immersed in a virtual nature setting prompts “an increase in positive affect (happiness, friendliness, affection, and playfulness), and a decrease in negative affect (fear, anger, sadness).” Having a nature photo as wallpaper on your desktop or phone is good for you by “soothing your connected mind.” Being immersed in virtual nature while gaming – think Skyrim or stomping through island jungles of Assassin’s Creed IV  – provides an ‘escape’ that produces positive emotional states and even restoration.

A week ago, Microsoft announced the update to Photosynth that produces a dreamlike 3D experience. You “can see scores of synths created with this new technology” at, as well as “sign up for the technical preview program so you can make these synths yourself. The new synths are as smooth as a Steadicam video, but they’re ultra-resolution and completely interactive. Not to mention completely addictive!”

For your health, of course, to reduce stress and increase positive feelings, you really must take one minute for virtual nature to see the high-altitude flight to Everest; Microsoft explained, “Every frame contains a whopping 60 megapixels.” It feels like a video, except “you can stop anywhere and zoom in on every last pixel.”

Flight to Everest by on Photosynth

How Does It Work? Microsoft explained:

When you upload a set of photos to our cloud service, our technology starts by looking for points (called “features”) in successive photos that appear to be the same object. If it finds many features that reoccur in your set of photos, it passes this information on to the second step: bundle adjustment. Bundle adjustment, a standard technique in photogrammetry, determines where in 3D space each feature is, exactly where each photo was taken from, and how the camera was oriented for each photo.

Third, the technology uses the feature points in each photo to generate 3D shapes. It does so on a per-photo basis rather than trying to generate a global 3D model for the scene. The 3D model generated by Photosynth is coarse-you can see it if you type “c” (for camera) in the viewer and then use your mouse wheel to zoom out.

Next, the technology calculates a smooth path (think of it as a Steadicam) through-or very close to-the camera locations for each photo. Using this path, Photosynth presents the experience of moving through a synth as a gliding motion even if the actual photos were shot at different heights or slightly off-angle. You can see the path if you type “m” (for map) in the viewer. Finally, Photosynth slices and dices the images into multi-resolution pyramids for efficient access.

The newest Photosynth tech supports four types of experiences: spin, panorama, walk and wall. Photosynth spin: Spin around an object as small as a seashell or as large as a mountain. Photosynth panorama: Put yourself in the center of a space and look in every direction. Photosynth walk: Follow a path through the woods or fly toward a destination. Photosynth wall: Slide across a scene, checking out every last detail. You can get “professional tips and tricks for shooting these new types of synths” by checking out the Expert Shooting Guide [pdf].

There’s no offline format or viewer, so synths cannot be saved directly on your computer. When it comes to privacy rights, according to the FAQs, anyone can view your uploaded synths unless it is “unlisted.”

Making a synth unlisted doesn’t make it completely private, but it does keep it from being found by other users with a web search or through exploration in the Photosynth main site. You can still share direct links to unlisted synths, but when you share unlisted direct links, you’re letting that unlisted synth out into the wilds of the Internet. Anyone with a copy of that link can then see your unlisted synth.

Another aspect that it is important to point out is that the new Photosynth technology uses metadata. “Can I use a D-SLR? A point-and-shoot camera? A mobile device? A Go-Pro camera? Yes. However, a small number of cameras don’t provide EXIF/XMP metadata, which the new Photosynth technology uses. If you upload a photo missing this metadata, Photosynth warns you about it.”

Again, for your health, happiness and psychological well-being, take a few moments to enjoy virtual nature and the new Photosynth of Ingalls Peak. [Full-screen FTW].

Ingalls Peak by wideangle on Photosynth

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.