Three years ago, Randy Sargent left his job with NASA to invent a camera system he believed would revolutionize the way people share information.
Now he is watching the revolution begin.
"We had a lot of crazy ambitions for Gigapan," said Sargent, senior systems scientist for the Global Connection Project at Carnegie Mellon University. "But if you asked me then if, realistically, we would ever get to this point, I'd probably have said no. It is definitely exceeding my expectations."
In the coming month, 300 Gigapan camera systems will be shipped to people around the world. The systems -- created by Carnegie Mellon, NASA, Google, Charmed Labs and the local Web site design company DeepLocal -- enable users to take a standard digital camera and create a panorama that can be explored by anyone with an Internet connection.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is the first newspaper in the world to bring the cutting-edge technology to readers with Gigapan images shot by Trib photographers.
The Trib is among an elite group of about 80 scientists, artists, photographers and students to get first crack at using the camera system. The group has taken almost 1,500 images from all seven continents.
"The thing about Gigapan that's exciting is that it's potentially a disruptive technology for photography," said Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. "Actually, it's a little more than that -- it's a disruptive technology for storytelling. It changes ... how we use an image. An image becomes something you interact with and explore and discover."
Gigapan stands for gigapixel panorama. It is composed of billions of pixels, the smallest elements of an image displayed on a computer monitor or television screen.
The system is a digital camera, set to full zoom, mounted on a robot. The top left and bottom right corners of the subject to be photographed -- whether a city skyline or a tree stump -- are entered into the robotic system. The motorized device then automatically moves, taking hundreds of slightly overlapping photos until it captures the entire scene.
The photos are downloaded to a computer and free software "stitches" them together into one large image -- a Gigapan. The process can take several hours depending on the size of the image.
Once the image is assembled, it can be posted on the Gigapan Web site, www.gigapan.org. Users around the world can explore the image, zooming in to reveal tiny details.
For example, a photo taken of Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington appears as a panorama of the city skyline. However, by using the controls on the Gigapan Web site, viewers can zoom in and resolve details such as the waving American flag on the blockhouse in Point State Park.
It is that ability to resolve details, while keeping the image in context of the bigger panorama, that makes Gigapan so useful for science, said Ron Schott, assistant professor of geology at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.
"That's where the power is," said Schott, who plans to use it to study rock layers and fossils in cliffs and other inaccessible places that can be viewed at a distance.
The camera system was designed and manufactured by Charmed Labs in Austin, Texas, which specializes in educational robotic devices and is based in the garage of president and founder Rich LeGrand.