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Sweeping Panoramas, Courtesy of a Robot
source: The New York Times


GigaPan robotic device.
source: Carnegie Mellon University/ New York Times



ROBOTS already cut the grass and vacuum rugs. Now they are helping with a more artistic job: creating vast photographic panoramas with ordinary cameras.

A new, inexpensive robotic device from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University attaches snugly to almost any standard digital camera, tilting and panning it to fashion highly detailed panoramic vistas -- whether of the Grand Canyon, a rain forest or a backyard Easter egg hunt. The robot is called GigaPan, named "giga" for the billion or more pixels it can marshal for a typical panorama. It creates the huge, high-resolution vista by extending its robotic finger and repeatedly clicking the camera shutter, taking tens, hundreds or even thousands of overlapping images, each at a slightly different angle, that are then stitched together by software to create one gigapixel shot.

Viewers can explore a panorama in detail when it is displayed on a computer screen, clicking on any part of the image and then zooming in for crisp close-ups. You can move from an overall shot of the forest, for instance, to an image of one small moth resting on the side of a single tree trunk.

The roboticized camera mount and related software were devised by a team led by Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon West and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. The work was part of a project to introduce people to different countries and cultures through images.

The GigaPan provides a low-cost alternative to sophisticated motorized camera mounts on the market used to take panoramic photos, said Greg Downing, co-founder of the xRez Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., which specializes in gigapixel photography. The motorized mounts can cost thousands of dollars, he said, and typically require a high-end camera.

Dr. Nourbakhsh said the Carnegie Mellon robotic mount, to be released commercially later this year, would be priced "so that as many people as possible can afford to use it."

"We hope it will cost in the low hundreds of dollars -- well below $500," he said. The GigaPan will attach to any ordinary point-and-shoot digital camera.

About 300 test models of the GigaPan robot and software have been tried worldwide during the past year by scientists, schoolchildren and photography fans, among others, Dr. Nourbakhsh said.

People can share their panoramas at a Web site provided by Carnegie Mellon (www.gigapan.org).

Ronald C. Schott, an assistant professor of geology at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., who tried the GigaPan during its testing phase, has posted many of his panoramas at the site. Preparing to shoot the pictures is straightforward, he said. The photographer attaches the mount to an ordinary tripod, attaches the camera and decides on the breadth of the scene. Then the robot goes to work, dividing the total vista into segments and clicking away.

Dr. Schott, who had earlier tried to create panoramas on his own by moving the tripod for each shot, thought that the robot did a far better job. "Doing it manually was tedious and often ineffective," he said.

Dr. Schott's GigaPan images can be seen at www.gigapan.org/viewProfile.php?userid=1252. "As you zoom in you get progressively higher resolution images, and at the deepest level is the fully detailed image that the robot shot," he said.

The details in these images often surprise him. "I find things I hadn't noticed when I was in the field," he said. "This gives you the joy of discovery not found in traditional photos."

Richard Palmer, an environmental health specialist at the Hawaii State Department of Health in Honolulu, also tested the GigaPan. One main advantage of the system, he said, is that users can use a telephoto lens rather than a wide-angle one, providing more detail and depth to the image.

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