Monday, August 6, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

3-D Web views of space center to show off new photo technology

Seattle Times technology reporter

NASA Photosynth

Photo collections of NASA space shuttles and buildings can be viewed online using Photosynth, a software download from Microsoft. The new collections are at, which also provides information on the download and system requirements. is also including links to the collections with its coverage of the space shuttle Endeavour.

NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to give anyone with an Internet connection better-than-VIP access to the pinnacle of American technological achievement.

Detailed, high-resolution photographs were posted late Sunday to a Microsoft Web site showing the space shuttle Endeavour, the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Pad 39A and other features of the Kennedy Space Center.

The photo sets use Microsoft's innovative photo-viewing technology, Photosynth, which places the images in 3-D context and allows viewers to navigate fluidly from image to image.

"These are some of the largest and most complex buildings and structures and vehicles that have ever been built, and with Photosynth we're able to put it all together in one breathtaking scene, where you can zoom out to see the huge scale of the launch pad facility and then zoom in and see the serial numbers on the heat-shield tiles" of the shuttle, said Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA Ames Research Center.

Endeavour is scheduled to launch Wednesday evening, bound for the international space station.

The Photosynth technology was born of research by University of Washington graduate student Noah Snavely and computer-science professor Steven Seitz, with Microsoft researcher Richard Szeliski. Their work was combined with other efforts at Microsoft and a Ballard startup the company acquired in 2005.

Photosynth was demonstrated to rave reviews last summer and Microsoft is moving to polish a final product and expose it to a larger audience. The NASA collaboration is part of that effort.

These images are "probably the most compelling use of Photosynth that we've done so far," said Adam Sheppard, group product manager in Live Labs, the Microsoft arm working on the technology. "It's really kind of a precursor to where we'd like the technology to evolve over time."

He said the technology represents "a new media format" that will change how people take and display digital images.

The NASA "synths," as Microsoft calls these photo environments, show parts of the space program rarely seen.

Kemp said a Live Labs photographer got access to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the shuttle is mated to the fuel tanks. The photographer was flown around the launch pad on a security helicopter, and "took photos that no one has ever been able to take before, even if you're a VIP at the launch," Kemp said.

Beyond public relations, NASA is interested in the Photosynth technology for its potential to support future missions, Kemp said.

One example being tested: When the shuttle arrives at the international space station, cameras photograph its exterior as it does a "somersault maneuver." This is part of a process to inspect the heat-shield tiles. (The 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster was caused by damage to the heat shield.)

"We've taken all these pictures and put them all together so that you can literally scan around the shuttle" and zoom in on individual tiles, Kemp said.

The synth could be shared via the Internet with people across the country.

At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft is preparing to release the software broadly, Shephard said.

"In the not-too-distant future," he said, "we're anticipating releasing the ability for people to create their own synths, and that will also include the ability to take not just your own images, but the images of other people and essentially ... re-create these 3-D environments and to join and navigate them all together in a single experience."

Benjamin J. Romano:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!