Take Me to Your Robot: New Documentary Methods from Carnegie Mellon Univeristy's CREATE Lab

Article excerpt

In recent years, while photographers were sadly selling their enlargers and pondering a printer's bit depth, Silicon Valley NASA computer scientists were inventing new digital imaging technology for Mars Rovers to record visual data of the alien planet. Randy Sargent, a member of the programming team, describes the work:

  One of the things the Rovers would do is shoot panoramas a
  straightforward idea that if you wanted to maximize information,
  you would take mulotiple pictures of a scene and "stitch"
  them together into a larger, panoramic view.
  So, we played with ways of capturing the pictures,
  finding new ways to explore the picture essentially developing
  new ways of seeing. (1)

After having worked on experiments in Silicon Valley with CREATE Lab's founding scientist, Illah Nourbakhsh, Sargent joined the CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University to continue honing GigaPan technology. As Sargent explains, "I started talking to other scientists, and we thought we could take that part of the Mars Rover, with the pan and tilt and the panorama capability, and explore the Himalayas the same way wewere exploring Mars." (2) Thus GigaPan for planet Earth was conceived. GigaPan is a small robotic armature on which a camera rests while the armature pans a scene, taking individual pictures across a field of view determined by the photographer. The resulting pictures are then "stitched" together into a panorama of 50 megapixels to 40 gigapixels, and the image is uploaded and shared on the GigaPan website. (3)

CREATE Lab programmers Miriam Goldberg, Paul Heckbert, Gabriel O'Donnell, and others continue to refine the stitching software and web system so viewers of GigaPan images can zoom in on minute details withint he panoramic vistas. The ability to "see" deeply into an image has fundamentally altered one of the photograph's basic tenets: flatness. The GigaPan viewer is free to explore the depth of the image, not just the still, two-dimensional pictorial space.

While GigaPan technology has supplanted the flatness of the photographic image, the GigaPan project has also transformed what it means to share cross-cultural information. Visitors to the CREATE Lab's GigPan website are free to share, comment, and ask questions about the content of the pictures as they explore the actual three-dimensional space of another place. The diverse educational and cross-cultural opportunities in response to this visual data are vast, and continue to grow as participants in the GigaPan projects number in the thousands and the CREATE Lab extends its global educational outreach.

CREATE Lab's GigPan Education, (4) in partnership with UNESCO, supports cross-cultural sharing and education. GigaPan Education researcher Laura Tomokiyo's recent ethnography includes using GigaPan in the far reaches of Alaska, documenting native communities struggling to retain their ancient whaling practices in the face of global warming. GigaPan Education will host the GigaPan Dailogues International Workshop this November, bringing together the Director of the International Bureau of Education and educators around the world.

Also in November at Carnegie Mellon is the CREATE Lab's Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging for Science, featuring research and talks on recent developments in digital imaging. The CREATE Lab partners with over one hundred fellows, called Fine Fellows, training them to use GigaPan technology to document their scientific research. …