The New Panopticon

Photosynth from Microsoft Live Labs is amazing. Currently only available as a free technology preview, it gives a glimpse into a future that could completely re-draw our map of publishing and imaging and perhaps more.

If your system is up to it (Windows XP and Vista only, a fast web connection and decent graphics card), it only takes a few minutes to download and install this 5Mb ActiveX control, and although the preview is currently limited to supplied image collections, it does give some idea of the power of this technology in connecting images into truly “breathtaking multidimensional spaces with zoom and navigation features that outstrip all expectation.”

Microsoft acquired the technology by buying the Seattle company Seadragon in February. The team have also been working with the BBC for the series ‘How We Built Britain’. You can see some of the work from this country in the Your Britain in Pictures demonstration (which will also install the Photosynth control if it is not already present.) The Trafalgar Square collection is interesting as it includes archive images from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the National Media Museum, although it is perhaps a little short of images to show the full potential of the system.

You can get a better idea of its potential by watching its ‘architect’, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, demonstrating a more advanced version at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a high-level annual conference sponsored by BMW, which also makes clearer some of the issues involved as well as demonstrating the incredible power of the application.

One image set was produced by searching photo-sharing site Flickr for images of Notre Dame in Paris, aggregating this incredibly disparate set of images (many typical tourist snaps) to produce a detailed highly-zoomable 3D model of the building, which also incorporates any captioning and keywording from the originals. As Blaise remarks at one point, their use of images has severe implications about copyright. Both the small print of photo-sharing sites and also proposed legislation on ‘orphan works’ are perhaps to some extent driven by the possibilities of software such as this.

At one point, Blaise throws the whole of an issue of ‘The Guardian’ on the screen, laid out page by page, then effortlessly scrolls and zooms around it, zooming at one point down to single character level to show the high resolution the system supports. Of course it needn’t just be a picture that already can provide rather superior quality to the printed version as well as being in some respects easier to browse; it would be simple to make it searchable text and to add text hotlinks to the existing image links.

This is a part of technology that can and will change the future of publishing – and lead to the end of print except as a niche fine-art medium. I think it will also change the whole economic and social structure of the industry. Probably not for the better, and almost certainly not for the benefit of those currently working in it.

Among many print journalists there still seems to be something of a head in the sand mentality. Citizen journalism, blogs, interactive web technologies and more are not going to go away. If we don’t learn more about the future we have no chance of influencing it.

At the moment, the Internet is still largely in the ‘Black and Decker’ age, where anyone can set up a site – like this one – and get their ideas out. A click of the mouse takes you from one site to another. Developments like this make the idea of huge and largely if not entirely isolated seamless commercial content conglomerations, rather more likely as the future.

Photosynth is also a glimpse of an Orwellian nightmare, linked to our increasing coverage of security cameras. This week a judge was acquitted in an indecent exposure trial because it could neither be proved nor disproved that he was the person involved. Had the CCTV images from the train been available they could have proved his innocence (or guilt), but apparently the British Transport Police had been too busy to collect them before the storage was overwritten.

The camera on the station, in the carriage, on the platform, the underground passage way, the street corner, in the bus, the workplace entry will doubtless soon all be wifi linked to network storage. Rather than tailing suspects, computers will recognise them by clothing and facial features, pulling out a collection from the giant image base, aggregating it with information from mobile phone locations and conversations. Little need for the house arrest that has got our government into trouble with the judges.

Modern technology enables us to spread Bentham’s Panopticon, with its control over minds by both the actual surveillance of individuals and the fear of the individual that they may be watched to the whole city. Photosynth and related software for handling and processing huge collections of data isn’t just going to revolutionise how we view and use images.

Peter Marshall

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