This Braddock, Pa., vista taken from Duquesne shows the BOC Gases company, near the location where the first shot of the French and Indian War was fired, and where Gen. Edward Braddock met his death. The Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib, is the holiest Sikh site and is located in Punjab, India. Because the Gigapan takes a series of photos to create one image, some of the people in this shot can be spotted more than once, if they happened to be walking while the camera snapped its various shots.

Jan 15 2008

Look Over Here, and Here

New device enables digital cameras to take panoramic photographs with astonishing detail.

New device enables digital cameras to take panoramic photographs with astonishing detail.

The low cost and forgiving nature of digital photography has led to an explosion of use in schools across the country. Free from the cost of developing film, and armed with relatively powerful cameras for a modest sum, teachers and students are bringing photography to the classroom in a variety of ways. Now a robotic device called the Gigapan is ready to break through another barrier, letting students take gigapixel panoramic pictures that retain the detail of a good close-up.

What makes the technology so dynamic? Unlike a static image, a Gigapan digital photo can be explored. Students can zoom in and uncover details that were previously undetectable and, using annotations, can turn a panoramic photo into a history lesson.

“Students can zoom in on the image, which puts them in complete control,” says Rich LeGrand, an electrical and computer engineer who is the president of Charmed Labs, a company in Austin, Texas, that designs, manufactures and sells robotic-related educational products to schools. Science technology and so-called robot courses have experienced significant growth in the past 10 years, says LeGrand.

The technology behind the Gigapan camera system, developed over two years, is the brainchild of the Global Connection Project, a partnership formed by Carnegie Mellon University, Google, NASA and National Geographic. LeGrand redesigned the Gigapan prototype created by Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s West Coast campus, and co-director of the Global Connection Project with Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

Gigapan Basics

The Gigapan connects to the bottom of the camera, takes pictures and then rotates the camera to capture another shot. The results are stitched together to create the panoramic image.

Using the Gigapan is simple. First you attach the Gigapan robot to your standard digital camera (it’s nicely compact, measuring 6 inches wide, 4 inches deep and 5 inches high). Then mount your camera on a tripod. After that, it’s pretty much point-and-shoot.

But here’s what happens when you hit the shoot button. The Gigapan manipulates the pan-and-tilt gaze, and proceeds to capture potentially hundreds of digital images of your photographic subject. “It’s as though the subject is being divided into a grid and there’s a picture being taken of each square on the grid,” says LeGrand.

Because digital cameras can’t be “told” to take a picture through a USB connection, the robotic device actually has a small finger-like part that pushes down the camera’s shutter. “It’s really fun to watch,” says Nourbakhsh.

Gigapan’s software then digitally “stitches” all these images together, creating a seamless panoramic image, flush with detail. The photo’s vast detail resides in the pixels — billions of them — which require computers with a fair amount of memory to display the images. The Global Connections Project created a communal space,, for posting Gigapan images so the pictures can be viewed on most computers.

A New World of Detail

“The act of exploring these pictures tells a story,” Nourbakhsh says. Students in Braddock, an economically depressed part of Pittsburgh, used the device to document their neighborhoods, and college students in Atlanta are using the pictures to document the city’s homeless population.

LeGrand cites three images posted on the Gigapan Web site that show how these shots can be used in the classroom. One is of a street market in Guatemala. Zooming in provides a close look at the different vendors, their wares and customers. Another is of the main atrium of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which displays historic artifacts, such as The Spirit of St. Louis, the airplane Charles Lindbergh used to cross the Atlantic in 1927. If you zoom in, you can see the flags on the body of the plane and even read the placards at the exhibits, LeGrand says. A picture of the entire span of the Golden Gate Bridge lets users “zoom in to see the intricacy of the cable, and even the types of cars that are traveling over the bridge,” he adds.

“That’s the important part — you can get context and information,” says LeGrand, who sums up the value of the photos in a single word: telepresence.

“Telepresence is essentially ‘being there’ electronically,” says LeGrand. “You now have a virtual set of eyes and ears, and you can collect information about that place without actually being there. The Gigapan is a way to provide telepresence to someone.”

LeGrand estimates that the Gigapan will be available for sale by spring 2008. With a suggested retail price of about $400, the robot is affordable. But although some of Gigapan’s beta testers were students and teachers, will schools jump on board? “It’s a brand new medium, and it may take a while for people to figure out all the possible applications,” LeGrand says. “There are very few images that can act like a Gigapan image.”

Creating “Documentarians”

The future of Gigapan digital photography in an educational setting looks bright, researchers say. These observations come from the first-hand knowledge gleaned by the educational and research project created by the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The Robot250 project ( was launched in early 2007 and continues through August 2008. Its first project gave several dozen middle school students who were members of community centers in Pittsburgh the chance to be among the first to use the Gigapan.

Working in groups of two and three, students chose parts of their neighborhoods to photograph with the Gigapan. After the images were uploaded to the Gigapan Web site (, students could zoom into the pictures to further contemplate — and then write about — what the images meant to them.

“We’re awakening documentarian skills in them,” says Dennis Bateman, project director for Robot250, which worked with several community organizations to set up Gigapan programs. Bateman emphasized that the goal of these programs, most of which ran between 30 and 40 hours, was to raise technological consciousness among regular, not advanced, students. “The better they can get along with technology, the better off they’ll be,” Bateman says.

One student group from the local YWCA/YMCA spent time at the Wilkinsburg gazebo mural, where the material that served as the roof and the outer boundaries of the display were covered with artistic representations of prominent black figures from politics and the arts. Visitors to the site who clicked on separate images could read students’ comments. One middle schooler, touched by the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., wrote, “Let us all stop and look at what we have lost, so now let us all come as one.”

Stopping and paying attention is key. “We’re getting them to look at their neighborhoods differently,” says Bateman, “These students might have walked past that mural a hundred times and never stopped.” Schools with Gigapan technology could change all that.