Billion-Pixel Image Tool Probes Science Mysteries

Ultra-zoomable GigaPan gives experts "incredible" new perspective.

GigaPan—the ultra-zoomable imaging technology—is enabling novel research in archaeology, zoology, and many other scientific fields, experts said this week.

The system stitches thousands of closeup images together into panoramas of thousand-megapixel resolution, which are hosted at the Gigapan website and viewable from anywhere in the world.

Robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh's CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University first created the technology, which uses a robotic camera mount, a software package, and a digital camera.

The lab initially received support from NASA's Ames Intelligent Robotics Group and Google to develop the system for Mars-bound rovers.

But in recent years, the team has also crafted an affordable (as low as $300) GigaPan tool and put it in the hands of scientists.

GigaPan workshops have since trained dozens of experts in diverse fields, including many who attended the Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging for Science, held at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh from November 11 to 13.

Gigapan's many applications make rich data available for collaboration by disparate teams, Michael Sims, of NASA's Ames Research Center, told National Geographic News at the conference.

"These are very large images, and if you try to display them on a standard system it would crunch to a halt," Sims said.

"How does one get such an image from a central location to a [university] or anywhere else with modest bandwidth, and how can we get that image displayed in a way that works? GigaPan is a great solution to those problems."

Gigapan: Down to an Art

For instance, rock-art expert Sandra Olsen took GigaPan to Saudia Arabia to document that nation's outstanding examples of ancient petroglyphs with the help of photographer Richard T. Bryant.

Working with the Saudi Ministry of Education, Olsen and her team are permanently documenting some of the world's most impressive rock art online. (See a Gigapan of rock art in France.)

Petroglyphs are often found in remote or inaccessible areas, but GigaPan technology allows anyone to view them online with unprecedented detail.

Olsen, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, explained that the images also give her a scientific edge that can sometimes be better than actually being on site.

"You can take a composite image of an entire cliff face and zoom in on a single grain of sand," she said.

"You can see incredible details. It's a fantastic tool for spatial analysis. You can see which images overlie others and see the relationships between scenes—even while sitting in your own office."

GigaPan can also reveal important details that field research simply doesn't allow, she noted. For instance, Gigapan gave Olsen a new perspective on an unfinished petroglyph of a wild ass—a type of donkey—that was stopped and restarted at various times throughout prehistory.

(See related blog: "Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed.")

"If you want to study how a petroglyph was made, sometimes there is an advantage to coming across images that were stopped in mid-creation," she said. "That's something that I didn’t observe initially because our time at the site was limited, and I didn't have time to do that kind of analysis. Instead I'm doing it on the computer."

Gigapan Keeps Beekeepers Busy

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a Penn State University entomologist, is using GigaPan as a weapon in the fight against colony collapse disorder, which imperils bees worldwide.

(See "U.S. Bee Collapse May Be Due to Alien Virus.")

A typical beehive is a box with a series of ten removable "frames" on which the bees construct honeycombs with thousands of individual wax cells. These frames make fantastic subjects for GigiPan images of beehives.

"Usually while diagnosing disease, you look at an overall view of the whole colony, as well as looking in the individual cells," vanEngelsdorp said.

"For the first time, in one image, you can look at a frame-level view and see symptoms of disease and also look into those individual cells, which is incredible," he said.

"It allows beekeepers to search over the frame and look for different things both normal and unhealthy," he added.

In 2011, vanEngelsdorp hopes to take the technology a step further as a diagnostic tool by removing and imaging frames weekly, so that experts can watch in detail as a bee colony expands and collapses.

"It's a tool for beekeepers," he said. "It allows them to look at colonies at all stages of symptoms and say, retrospectively, whether they are seeing early or late stages of disease, and see how diseases can look as they get more advanced."

Virtual Bug Sharing

For Andrew Deans, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, GigaPan is a way to share the university insect museum's collection of some 1.5 million insects with scholars around the world.

Deans considered how botanists are able to press plants and create digital archives of their collections and wondered if GigaPan might present a way to do the same with insect drawers—each of which might house 50 large beetles or thousands of tinier insects.

A trained entomologist can tell a lot from a look at an insect drawer, for example by noting various genera and species in a collection and determining whether it's worth a personal visit.

(Related picture: "Mystery Bug Found at London Museum.")

"The museum represents a series of snapshots over time of what insects were present in North Carolina dating back to the 1800s," Deans said. "We've had development, urbanization, introduced diseases that changed forest composition, and introduced species of insects eating native insects."

With GigaPan, bug experts can virtually "pull out" the museum's insect drawers for inspection.

"I feel that GigaPan images give professionals a clear picture of what we have in the collection," Deans said, "and we may also get a lot of valuable feedback about our curation."

Finding a Forest With the Trees

Chris Fastie, a forest ecologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, put GigaPan to work in thick birch stands at the Bonanza Creek ecological-research site near Fairbanks, Alaska.

Fastie measured data valuable to forest ecologists, such as stand basal area, a 2-D measure of the cross-sectional area of trees in a given stand.

For some 60 years, foresters have calculated this by the Bitterlich method: standing in place, holding a thumb at arm's length, turning 360 degrees, and counting the number of trees as big or bigger than a thumb.

The method produces accurate estimates of forest composition—and Fastie found out that it can be replicated with GigaPan. This could allow ecologists to share data and look at plots from anywhere in the world. In rare cases, it could also help them to recreate historic forests.

(See "Group to Clone California Redwoods.")

"There is the potential to find old photos of forests, taken in places where we know nothing of the condition of basal area, and we might be able to figure it out," he said.

Fastie noted, however, that he'd have to know the exact spot from which such an image was taken to make such a "before and after" comparison.

Perhaps even more promising, Fastie found GigaPan to be an excellent mapping tool because of the stitching software and ready-made data gathered in the images themselves.

"From the GigaPans I took, I was able to map the locations of 150 birch trees without measuring anything in the field," he said.

"The mapping technology I think has great potential. There is very rich information in 360-degree views of anything, from forests to cities, that can be turned into 2-D maps quite easily. You could even make a topographic map of the surfaces depicted in a GigaPan."

Future Gigapan Uses: Sky's the Limit

Additional uses of GigaPan may be limited only by the imagination, experts say.

For example, new applications already include archaeological surveys of Petra, Jordan; investigation of layers of sedimentary rock; and citizen-scientist research collaborations.

A nonprofit lab, the Global Connection Project (started by Carnegie Mellon, NASA, Google, and the National Geographic Society) coordinates GigaPan outreach, education, and science work. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

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