The following post is by Alison Griffiths, author of the just-published Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. You can also read an interview with Griffiths.
In his “State of the Art” column in the business section of the August 21, 2008 New York Times, David Pogue wrote about a new software application from Microsoft called Photosynth (previewable at www.photosynth.com), which allows you to create fully navigable 360-degree spaces with your own camera. While it’s been possible to create panoramic photographs since the invention of photography, and 360-degree panoramic images since the late eighteenth century when Scotsman Robert Barker patented the panorama (discussed at length in chapter two of Shivers), Photosynth brings the panorama to the masses and with several new features. Moreover, when compared to earlier uses of photography to create panoramas, Photosynth provides significantly greater flexibility in terms of allowing users to zoom into the photograph and look behind them.
Despite the fact that Photosynth, as Pogue points out, is similar to Apple’s QuickTime VR and before that to 360-degree imaging companies such as IPIX and Be Here (which I talk about in chapter 3 of Shivers), there are important differences such as the ability to zoom almost infinitely, the elimination of a 360-degree tripod, and enhanced mobility. Had Photosynth come out just a bit sooner it would doubtless have made it into the examples of immersive and interactive technologies of virtual transport I explore in Shivers Down Your Spine. While Pogue’s final assessment of Photosynth reads something like a glass half-full scenario—he calls it both “amazing” and “incredibly frustrating”—his feelings that it is definitely “wicked cool” raises an important question about where we’re headed (and where we’ve have been) with regards to immersive and interactive technologies.
Several things come to mind: first, unlike 360-degree panoramas in the nineteenth century, which were huge (both literally and in terms of their popularity) and let spectators walk around a virtual space such as a landscape or battleground, the current crop of 3-D, VR technologies require interaction on the part of the spectator in ways unimagined by spectators of their predecessors. You don’t just pay the entry fee and get an instant sensation: you have to visit the Web site, install the necessary Web browser plugin, start uploading photographs, and hope you’ve shot enough photographs of your chosen space so that you don’t end up with any blank spaces (a potential glitch). Second, we can never completely conceal the wizard behind the curtain; as Pogue explains, the “photoness” of the images is noticeable, which means “you see their outlines flicker as you move your mouse around the screen.” Plus you get blank space and white pixels (aka the “point cloud”) when you move to an adjoining photo, frustrating to say the least. But why should we be surprised?
No virtual imaging technology can be anything other than virtual, which means it will have seams, edges, blurring, delays not unlike what goes on in our own visual field from time to time based on certain medical conditions, drug side-effects, hangovers, or other neurological conditions that affect perception. If Photosynth ends up being “less a virtual-reality tool than a glorified slideshow” (in Pogue’s words) then it simply joins a long list of still and moving imaging techniques and technologies, and, more to the point, the fantasies and aspirations of their inventors who in turn are motivated by the socio-cultural, political, and economic climate in which they work, to finds ways of slicing and dicing reality and reassembling it into a (profitable) cool-looking novelty.
The third thing that strikes me about Photosynth is its very public profile, the fact that photographs that users create are automatically posted on the Web site with no option, at least in the current version, for keeping the images private. To go back to the panorama again, there are several interesting overlaps: panoramas were seldom viewed in private but were monumental in scale and collectively viewed by large numbers of people just as Photosynth on the web. Not surprisingly, the subject matter of panoramas reflected this—ancient antiquities were a big hit, along with cities and landscapes, places nineteenth-century spectators would have loved to have traveled to as tourists had they had the economic means. When Pogue tells us that a Photosynth of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris “blew the crowd’s mind” at a TED conference in 2007, we shouldn’t be surprised in the least since new visual or imaging technologies often preview their capabilities by showcasing iconic locales such as early cinema’s fascination with Niagara Falls.
Whether museums will want to incorporate Photosynth onto their websites remains to be seen. The ability to offer remote users more sophisticated access to collections and navigate galleries with a sense of the actual locale, the context in which objects and artworks are displayed as well as a close-up view of the objects is enticing to say the least. Any commercial entity whose collatoral is place-defined such as real estate, the hotel, tourist, and leisure industries will doubtless consider Photosynth as a way of enhancing the websumer experience. It behooves us, though, to never forget that we are still ultimately entering these virtual spaces via the computer mouse or touchpad on our itsy bitsy computer screen and until more people hook their computers up to their large-screen TV the novelty will be driven more by the enhanced mobility and control over the 360-degree image than the scale of the visuals and sense of the proportions of the actual space. The pleasure of manipulation and revelation of the digital image recalls Ridley Scott’s classic Bladerunner scene in which Harrison Ford’s zooms in to a crime scene photograph on his computer screen in the hopes of finding valuable clues.
I can’t help but wonder, if we fast-forward into the future when Photosynth or derivatives are commonplace on the Web, how our expectation of seeing a space when we have poked around it on our flat screens (tiny flat screens if you factor in mobile viewing devices) will match up. Will that “oh wow” effect be somewhat diminished? Will we get a strange sense of déjà vu that is different from having looked at still or moving images of a space? In other words, how might the magic of Photosynth translate into our negotiation of the meanings (both cognitive and affective) of the actual space? If Photosynth, to quote Pogue one last time, “is a great way to visit a place before you go there, to remember a place after you’ve been there, or to show your inner sanctum to the whole world,” then we may end up spending so much time at famous places such as the Louvre or Pantheon taking countless photographs so we can successfully synth when we get home that we might be forget to sit for a while and simply take in the space, its atmosphere, sense of history that are not inscribed in the recording technology but in our memory synapses and tactile or olfactory encounter with the place that cannot (at least not yet) be re-created with Photosynth.