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What Is Microsoft Doing with Digital Photography?

On Wednesday and Thursday last week I attended the Microsoft (MSFT) Professional Photography Summit at Microsoft's Conference Center in Redmond, Washington. This was the third year that this invite-only two day conference has taken place in Redmond.

One of the things that I was impressed by with this conference was that it really was product neutral. Although this first post is going to mostly be about Microsoft photo technology, most of the conference presenters were not affiliated with Microsoft and came from many of the leading companies in photography today -- Adobe (ADBE), Getty Images, Canon (CAJ), Epson - and many other smaller photography related businesses were involved in various presentations.

Additionally, Microsoft brought many of the world's most outstanding professional photographers to speak at the conference including Franz Lanting, one of the top nature photographers working today and Melina Mara, a top photographer who works shooting politics for the Washington Post.

As part of the conference Robert Scoble and I were also able to spend some one on one time talking to Microsoft's Rich Media Group Directer Josh Weisberg, who also served as the event's moderator. Josh briefed Robert and I about a lot of the new things we have to look forward to from Microsoft with regards to photography.

There will be several upcoming posts coming out of this conference and a lot of the cool photography tech that I saw, but this post will focus mostly on what Microsoft is up to in the world of digital photography. Most of the presentations about Microsoft were done in 5 minute "Wow" sessions as part of the conference.

1. JPG XR.

Microsoft is pushing ahead with the new JPG XR (formerly called HD Photo). Bill Crow, Group Manager, Microsoft Live Labs, talked about this new format and the standardization process that it is going through at present. JPG XR will not replace RAW and photographers who still want the post production flexibility of RAW will likely continue using it -- but JPG XR is being positioned as a replacement to today's lossy JPG format. JPG XR is a much superior format to the current JPG standard that exists in most digital cameras today. It supports lossy as well as lossless compression. JPG XR will likely replace JPG in the near future and provide digital SLR owners a better photo format. Additionally, you will likely begin seeing JPG XR files showing up in camera phones and point and shoots -- not as much for the higher quality but for the smaller image sizes of the format.

According to Josh Weisberg at Microsoft, although Microsoft will retain the patents associated with JPG XR, the standard will be license free for anyone to use.

The big question that remains is how quickly the major camera manufacturers will begin to adopt JPG XR. Chuck Westfall, Canon's Technical Advisor/Professional Products Marketing Division, was on a panel on Thursday and commented that Canon would "love to put JPG XR into our cameras." Chuck suggested that camera manufacturers would still keep their proprietary RAW formats but would like to adopt the more flexible and better quality JPG XR in the future to replace JPG.

2. Photosynth.

Microsoft showcased the latest on its Photosynth technology. The exciting thing about Photosynth is that the technology is poised to move from a Microsoft Research project to an actual user software offering later this year. Photosynth batches together your photos from a single location and stitches a collection of the 2D photos arranged and explored in a 3D organization based on the environment where the photos were taken.

Microsoft showed the video above at the conference from a recent episode of CSI NY, where the technology was showcased. I asked if Microsoft had to pay "product placement" money to get that technology in the CSI NY episode and was told no.

As part of the Photosynth presentation, Microsoft also showcased a real life example of a bunch of photos from a baseball stadium that turned the stadium into a 3D showcase. The idea of the presentation was to show how easy Photosynths could be created from even a small batch of photos.

Microsoft's Channel 10 has a great video interview that covers more on the Photosynth technology and other Microsoft photo tech.

I hope that along with Photosynth, Microsoft builds some type of blog widget to embed these into blogs. This will be a very helpful new way to explore places around the planet.

3. Live Mesh.

I enjoyed the talk by Microsoft's Jeremy Mazner about Microsoft's Live Mesh technology. Live Mesh has multiple applications in the world of photography. First, Microsoft is developing technology to allow you to use Live Mesh to synch your photos both with other people as well as with cloud storage. By allowing you to synch your photos in multiple places, this serves as an important backup and safeguard strategy.

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