Rethinking maps, photos and search

MS Adds much more than Bling to Bing Maps

I continue to be impressed by all the great work coming out of Microsoft Research the past year or more and this presentation by Blaise Aguera y Arcas shows some of the most recent examples.  They are certainly providing great answers to my constant asking of “What if the Impossible Isn’t?”

I picked up on Blaise and the work he and his crew were doing over a year ago, initially with their creation of the Seadragon technology which they brought with them when they joined MS research and used it to create Photosynth which continues to amaze and impress me as well.

It seems like much of their research is centered around visual computing and interfaces and in my post a few days ago “Seeing is Believing 2.0?” I mentioned two other MS Research projects in this area, Pivot and SecondLight.  Today this presentation by Blaise is online from the TED 2010 conference where he shows how they are integrating a lot of technology including Flickr, Seadragon and Photosynth along with some Augmented Reality into Bing maps to enable some amazing new capabilities and possibilities.

Watch the video and I think you too will be impressed not only at the technology but with the new level of functionality and value these mashups are driving into maps.  It is really the whole area of using location as the grounding context for a huge array of other information and uses.

The New Frontier?  Going Inside

In one of my original postings on Photosynth I suggested/hoped that what we would see next was an ability a bit like a “cosmic zoom” * where we could zoom either up or down almost infinitely.  Up into the cosmos of space and down onto not only the street but inside of buildings and then below into the sea. 

* If you’ve never seen Cosmic Zoom, or it has been a while since you watched this 1968 video/animation from the National Film Board of Canada, I’ve embedded it at the bottom so you can treat yourself.

As usual change is occurring exponentially so it looks like Microsoft already has my wish!  As you’ve hopefully just seen in the video above Bing maps now provide an inside view capability where we can go from the outside street views into the inside of buildings.  They gain this in part by having dedicated “backpack cams” which can be taken inside public buildings and places to provide detailed inside views.  But my real excitement is about the ability to “go inside” via all the geo tagged photos from “the rest of us” that are posted to Flickr.  This is where the power of Photosynth really shows some promise to me as it stitches together any number of photos by aligning them in 3D space such that we end up with a highly integrated patchwork of all these interrelated photos.  This scales extremely well when you think of how many photos there are in Flickr (5,384 posted in the last MINUTE, 2.2 million geotagged the past month) and the Seadragon technology allows this to all happen extremely fast and with no apparent slowdown no matter how images are involved.  You’ll also see in the demo how they are able to add in video including a live feed that is similarly aligned within the maps and photos.  Imagine when (surely not if) there is the ability to similarly include all the videos up on the web and not “just” photos.

Look Up!

As if this wasn’t all more than enough to continue my fascination, it looks like they are also addressing my cosmic zoom up wish as well.  At the very end of the video Blaise was out of time but managed to demo an upcoming integration of Worldwide Telescope into Bing maps.  I what i thought was a very intuitive implementation you can simply look up into the sky to start seeing the imagery and data of the night sky from wherever you are standing (on the map). 

Location as Context

As I mentioned at the beginning I think we need to start thinking less about these as “maps” or at least redefine what maps are as we evolve more ways to use location as a central form of context within which we work with an view data, especially visual data.  Time is another bit of context and while it is not shown in the video above, because all the photos and imagery is time stamped you can go back and forth in time as well to see what things looked like in the past and then by adding layers on top, Augmented Reality, we can also see future scenarios such as buildings and reconstruction for example.  Blaise mentioned in the early part of his demo that they have found examples where Photosynth has included some very old photos and by setting the time back they are able to see the streets of Seatlle with horses and carriages. 

Rethinking & Redefining

So as you are thinking about all these new capabilities start to think how this is all part of fundamentally redefining or notion of maps and more so of search, (think spatial) and how we are quickly transfoming from consumer to creators.  These and other changes are also tranforming how we find, discover and learn just the right people, things, locations at just the right time.

PS.  FWIW, keep your eyes on both what’s coming out of MS Research as well as what lies ahead for the increased amount of collaboration between Microsoft, Yahoo, Flickr and Facebook.

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