Microsoft released the free online service, Photosynth, Wednesday night. The software arranges photo sets in their real-world, 3-D context and allows people to navigate smoothly around the canals of Venice, for example, or zoom in to read the serial numbers on the space shuttle's heat shields..

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Two years ago, Microsoft wowed audiences with technology to explore the world through digital photos.

The company demonstrated Photosynth, software that arranges photo sets in their real-world, 3-D context and allows people to navigate smoothly around the canals of Venice, for example, or zoom in to read the serial numbers on the space shuttle’s heat shields.

Now anyone can make a “synth,” documenting anything from a favorite sculpture to a real-estate listing to a city skyline in a new way. Microsoft released the free online service Wednesday night.

“We talk about the Internet bringing things to you, but the current Internet is so limited,” said David Gedye, Photosynth group manager. “It’s so slow, it’s so click-based. It’s a tiny little keyhole that you’re looking at the world through, and this is like a picture window.”

Since Microsoft’s small Live Labs team began showing off Photosynth in 2006, the top request has been for a version that individuals could use.

It starts at, where people can open an account (with a Windows Live ID) and begin creating “synths,” which require only an off-the-shelf digital camera and an 8-megabyte software download.

There are also already dozens of “synths” to view on the site, including several from National Geographic, which assigned photographers to document wonders of the world such as Stonehenge using Photosynth.

“If we’re successful with this, we’ve actually invented a new media type that’s halfway between photos, computer games and video,” Gedye said, citing Photosynth’s rich detail, user-controlled navigation and a cinematic qualities.

Rob Covey, who heads content development and design at National Geographic Digital Media, agrees that Photosynth has the potential to become a new medium.

“We’re just at the beginning of how to use this,” he said.

Microsoft suggests people create synths with 10 to 300 photos shot specifically for this purpose. They should blanket a subject from all sides and variety of perspectives, from panoramas to tight details.

It takes a moderately powerful computer about five minutes to calculate a synth of about a dozen photographs, matching elements they have in common to reconstruct the subject. The processing is done on the machine the synth creator uses, and the completed synth is stored on Microsoft servers.

For now, there is no option to create private synths; they’re all publicly available through the service. Each free account gets up to 20 gigabytes of storage — enough for 20,000, 1-megabyte digital photos.

Larger synths can take several hours to process, depending on the size of the photos and the power of the machine. But that’s still a dramatic improvement.

When Photosynth was demonstrated two years ago, “it took a day and a half on a big cluster of computers to calculate those synths,” said Alex Daley, Live Labs group product manager. The team had to significantly reduce the processing time to make the service usable by a wider audience.

In addition to documentary and travel photography, Photosynth is finding promising commercial applications.

High-end New York real-estate brokerage Brown Harris Stevens Select is using it to show off properties to clients unable to see them in person.

Photosynth offers a much more sophisticated way of communicating a space than even high-end virtual tools, said Shlomi Reuveni, the firm’s executive vice president.

“[It’s] very much like walking through the front door of a home for the first time and fully experiencing every element of design and architecture,” he said.

Artists and galleries are using Photosynth to expose their work in new ways. Scientists are documenting species collections for the “Encyclopedia of Life.” Restaurants are finding a new way to show off the dessert tray.

Photosynth is a distinctly Seattle innovation. It makes use of technology for smoothly streaming large digital images, developed by Seadragon Software, a Ballard startup Microsoft acquired. The system for arranging photo collections in their three-dimensional context was developed by University of Washington computer scientists.

The technologies were united and polished by a core group of about a dozen people in Microsoft’s Live Labs, who are based in Smith Tower and charged with quickly moving promising research into new Internet services.

Photosynth users can assign various rights to their photos in their synths through a Creative Commons license. A user can take down his or her synths at any time, but Microsoft keeps the calculations and analyses it performs to create the three-dimensional framework of the real world that underpins Photosynth.

That points to one likely direction for Photosynth. The team will be folded into Microsoft’s Virtual Earth mapping group later this year. Both Microsoft and competitor Google are working on better ways to expand their online mapping tools into three dimensions.

Photosynth is a natural fit for that, Daley said.

“We get this great sort of trellis of the world’s places,” he said. Later, that information can be used to improve local advertising and local search, among other things.

Many photographers, the early target audience for Photosynth, won’t get to use it right away. The service currently supports Windows XP and Vista only, leaving out the Apple Mac, which is extremely popular with photographers.

National Geographic had to order a Windows PC for a producer working on the Photosynth project.

Daley said Microsoft already recognizes the need to extend Photosynth to the Mac.

“We’ll get there,” he said. “We’re delivering this as early as possible.”

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or