Panoramic Possibilities

Historic photographs can show us what people used to wear, what tools they utilized, what their cities, countryside and wilderness looked like. But the details are often difficult to discern, simply because the resolution of the images is so limited. Imagine a digital photograph of Thomas Edison’s workshop with such high resolution that you could zoom in, and zoom in, and zoom in, until you could read the notes scrawled on the papers on his desk, name the books on his shelves, and identify what brand of tea he had been drinking.

Gigapixel technology, originally developed for exploring the surface of Mars, uses a swiveling robotic camera mount to take a large number of pictures in multiple directions which are then stitched together with software, resulting in a single, wonderfully high-resolution panorama. Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon University led the robotics team at NASA that designed the technology. He and his team, along with other individuals and organizations, have thought of all sorts of applications for the gigapan.

Conservation Magazine recently reprinted part of an article from Science that described how the collaborative team responsible for the invention worked to make it more widely accessible, and how it is being used in the service of environmental conservation.

That experience led directly to a technology that has become a powerful tool for teaching and public engagement with science and the natural world. Scientists are also using it for projects as diverse as analyzing Middle Eastern petroglyphs, monitoring an urban forest, archiving a museum insect collection, studying a collapsed honeybee colony, keeping tabs on glaciers, examining erosion in a jaguar reserve, and viewing Galápagos fish clustered into a bait ball.

…The final image contains more data than most personal computers can handle, so Nourbakhsh and his team developed a massive server system and website,, for storing and accessing GigaPans. When viewers zoom in on an area of an image, they seem to fly into the image itself. The result is an immersive, interactive experience that can reveal surprising details—an ant on a leaf in a forest, or a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower in a backyard. It’s like viewing nature through a huge magnifying glass.

GigaPan was initially developed by computer scientist Randy Sargent, a member of Nourbakhsh’s NASA team, who was inspired by the experience of investigating the landscape of Mars through gigapixel imagery. The online platform represents an exciting opportunity for users (of what will likely become an increasingly affordable and efficient technology) to create and store images that could prove immensely useful in the future for archiving, documenting, scientific surveying, and even art and education. The organization’s website describes its goals and purpose:

GigaPan is the newest development of the Global Connection Project, which aims to help us meet our neighbors across the globe, and learn about our planet itself. GigaPan will help bring distant communities and peoples together through images that have so much detail that they are, themselves, the objects of exploration, discovery and wonder. We believe that enabling people to explore, experience, and share each other’s worlds can be a transforming experience.

This technology and service are a step towards deep-sightedness, an opportunity to capture the Big Here photographically, and examine it closely and carefully. You can dive into some gigapixel images, like this picture of downtown Beirut, at the Gigapan site.

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