Monday, May 18, 2015

Time-lapse photography and The Photo Graph

My labmate and friend at UW has been working on a really cool project that just hit the press today. Here's a video for Ricardo's Time-laps Mining from Internet Photos:

A couple people have sent it my way, with some note like "this seems relevant to your interests!" which it very much is. What may not be apparent is how relevant. How very relevant indeed...

A descendent of Photo Tourism

This project is a descendent of Noah Snavely's Photo Tourism project from almost a decade ago, which was the first to show that computer vision techniques were robust enough to use on community photo collections, images taken by different people with different cameras under different viewing conditions/angles/lighting, to produce results such as the geometric 3D registration of all the photos and some of the geometry in the scene.

Both of these projects are extremely cool. Well, cool is an understatement. Both of these projects use community photos to show us completely new views and perspectives on our world. Look at Photo Tourism and understand the spatial context of the photos, even where people tend to walk and snap shots. Look at the Time-lapses to see the seasons change, buildings grow, glaciers melt...

I traveled to Rome, and I knew from this paper, Finding Paths through the World's Photos, what it would be like to enter the Pantheon. That the crowd would enter on the right and move through in a counterclockwise pattern, with most people taking most of the photos when they entered, and taking fewer and fewer as they reached the exit.

Here's my Pantheon selfie, because honestly, every other picture of this place has already been taken:

Pantheon PhotoCity selfie

Speaking of the Pantheon and other incredible UW projects descended from the Photo Tourism heritage, check out 3D Wikipedia:

From accidental crowd photography to intentional crowd photography 

There's a big problem with all of the projects outlined above: they only work in locations that have been heavily photographed, which means they only really work in popular tourist locations, where people are already taking photographs anyway. To solve this problem, I worked on a crowdsourcing game called PhotoCity. It was a real-world capture the flag game, where players were incentivized to take new pictures and capture new territory, instead of taking the same old iconic shots. In six weeks back in 2011, forty players took over 100,000 photos of University of Washington and Cornell campuses.

There is a need for a source of imagery that's not just "what I saw on my summer vacation," but that stems from people knowing their photos are contributing to time-lapses and 3D reconstructions, and purposefully going out to take pictures. I know a number of old PhotoCity players who are itching for this opportunity to exist again.

Incentivizing strangers on the internet to take photos is scary and daunting. What if they don't want to? How do you get people to do it anyway? These are the questions that tripped me up during my work on PhotoCity.

These days, I can point to projects like Mapillary, which makes streamlined apps and interfaces for collecting crowdsourced streetview images, and say these questions are not that scary. They weren't even that scary in the PhotoCity days. People do want to do want to take photos and to contribute in a way that adds up. They will do a good job, provided you give them good tools and feedback.

A personal note

I was pushed away from my PhotoCity project several years ago. I don't fully remember or understand why. I thought it would be okay, that I would work on something new and it would be fine, but it actually broke me and derailed my grad school career.

Ricardo told me about his time-lapse project back in October at the UW GRAIL retreat. It was one of the incidents that motivated me to quit grad school: This guy is doing awesome things in this domain, and I want to, too. In fact, I want to do the work that would very clearly support this other work and make it more powerful. But for some reason, the lab that specializes in this work was preventing me from doing this work, from continuing my work. Maybe someone from my lab will read this and realize how deeply this is still affecting me.

I quit grad school so I could resume working on crowdsourced photography, but it's taken time to get back on my feet. The situation made me frustrated and mad and depressed. Luckily, since last October, I've stumbled into many great opportunities that are helping me become myself again: creating the Feminist Hacker Barbie meme that swept the internet, programming for fun and profit, publishing papers (even one related to PhotoCity, to appear next month at FDG), teaching at the local university, and working with people who understand my crowdsourced photography ideas. It's a fascinating swirl of realigning priorities -- right now, I really should be grading the midterms for my Interactive Narrative class.

The Photo Graph

I have a plan to revive PhotoCity, or something like it. To build a new crowdsourced photography ecosystem. I am calling it The Photo Graph, because rather than being about capturing flags and building 3D models as with PhotoCity, it will be about building a connected graph of photos. Photos from the International Space Station could connect all the way down to ground-level photos. Photos from the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal could be registered with the before-photos, to let us see into the past before the natural disaster struck, or to aid in the recovery efforts there.

Progress so far is slow. Unsurprisingly, teaching is all-consuming. So far, I've rebuilt the PhotoCity website. I bought a new domain. I occasionally contribute to Mapillary's reconstruction pipeline OpenSfM, which is like a modern, pythonic version of Noah Snavely's Bundler (the original core of PhotoCity), and dream about how to build a new PhotoCity around it. I've also been working on related ideas, like using crowdsourced photography for event coverage and sharing experiences in real time.

I don't know if or when I'll actually work on the Photo Graph. Maybe soon, or maybe I'll get a real job instead. But this is your warning, Internet, that this idea of The Photo Graph is brewing and lurking and stewing. Maybe it'll come from me, or maybe it'll come from somewhere else. Keep sharing related projects and talking with me about it!

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