What Is ‘Photosynth’? Microsofts’s 3D Photo Mapping Tool

The first official project/product from Microsoft’s Live Labs is called “Photosynth.” What is it? It’s hard to describe succinctly. It appears to be kind of mashup of things: photo sharing, visual search, mapping and 3-D.

To me, at least conceptually, it’s pretty exciting. Here’s a video overview from Microsoft. (The video is something of a commercial for Live Labs, but also showcases Photosynth as a very provocative product.)

Earlier this year I did a longish post on Google Earth as an alternative search/browsing paradigm: the “Geobrowser.” Google and Microsoft are now in something of a mapping arms race that has little to do with consumer or advertiser demand. And Microsoft, notwithstanding Google Earth’s impressive features and developer community, believes it has the edge.

To see what’s really interesting about Photosynth and its implications one needs to step back. The Internet began as a text-based medium and is now becoming more and more visually rich. The growth of image search and the meteoric rise of online video are just two examples of this. Online, multiplayer gaming and virtual worlds like Second Life are other examples of emerging, visually immersive online environments.

People have difficulty imagining what search will look like five years from now. But it may in fact be that we collectively look back in a decade or so and see today’s text-based search as a quaint precursor to a much more engaging and multi-dimensional search paradigm – literally in 3-D.

According to the video Photosynth was a collaboration among groups at Microsoft, including the Virtual Earth team. The crew at Virtual Earth wants to build a rich, “immersive” visual environment that ties the real and the online worlds together. (I blogged about Microsoft’s vision for mapping here.)

Photosynth represents the merger of photosharing, community, search and 3-D mapping, with just a touch of gaming thrown in. Effectively it’s an alternative web-search paradigm based on visual imagery. This type of approach doesn’t replace the need for text-based search entirely but it could substitute for today’s search in a substantial number of cases (especially for anything local or travel).

The vision of creating a “photorealistic” virtual world online is extremely ambitious. But ultimately I believe it’s possible – and very exciting. The application will reportedly be available for download later this year.

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