Experiments in Geocoding

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at geocoding — attaching latitude and longitude (coordinate) data directly to the EXIF metadata in photographs so they can be precisely positioned on a map.

The easiest way to do this is to use a camera with a built-in GPS. Unfortunately, that’s still a pretty rare feature in cameras, and comes at a hefty premium. Because most people aren’t interested in the feature and never will be, it’s not likely to become commonplace any time soon. Some day we’ll all have high-quality cell phone cameras with native GPS — the Nokia N95 is the current front-runner, and I think it’s a safe bet the coming Google phone will have fully integrated GPS features. I’ve been holding back on taking the iPhone plunge until it has fully realized GPS capabilities (at which point it will also become the ultimate geocaching device).

But the cool thing is, you don’t have to wait for a GPS-enabled camera to start geocoding. Here are the results of my first geocoding experiment, created without a GPS-enabled camera. The icons are clickable; the thumbnails in the balloons are too.

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The photos aren’t great, the interface isn’t perfect, and due to several beginner’s mistakes, only some of the coordinates shown here are accurate. This was more a proof of concept than anything – a way to explore available software and techniques. You’d think generating a map like this would be trivial at this point in the game. Well… yes and no. There are a ton of options, but getting things to appear exactly the way you want them to is still a bit of a pain. Click through for the gory details.

I recently picked up an excellent (paper) map detailing 140 of Berkeley’s hidden pathways – concrete or wooden stairs covering the steep stretches between many of the twisting, heavily wooded streets of Berkeley. These were mostly built at the turn of the last century to help citizens without cars get to the local train systems. I recently explored a few dozen of the paths with my family, and started my geocoding experiment there.

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What Happened?

Mcoldtreeandsunsetatkin  T180 When CCDs go bad, accidental digital beauty. This reminded me of a series I stumbled across on LJWorld several years ago — the gorgeous results of having dropped a camera into a pond. Wonder how often people have this kind of accident and find themselves suddenly blessed with a “magic camera.” The only time something similar happened to me was when I was trying to shoot raindrops hitting the surface of the ocean in the middle of a tropical storm in Jamaica. Enough ambient moisture entered the camera body that everything it shot for the next few hours was distorted and smeary – not quite accidental beauty, just bad. And it cleared up by the next morning after leaving it open to dry overnight. Hmmm… I can find a few on Flickr, not nearly as many as I’d expect. Now I want to find a cheap/used digicam just to drown it.

Music: Tom Waits :: Murder In The Red Barn


Ugly truth: Photoshop takes so long to launch that I’ll sometimes defer doing small graphics jobs that need doing just to avoid sitting there staring at the splash screen. Funny how 60 seconds can seem like an eternity in the middle of a fast-paced work day. 90% of the time, 90% of people are doing everyday tasks that don’t require all of Photoshop’s functionality — and all of its bloat. The LE version is stripped down (don’t know what it’s launch times are like), but there’s an aching need out there for an elegant, fast, affordable but highly functional image editor for the Mac that basically works like Photoshop.

Pixelmator is exactly that. The UI is at once radically different and totally familiar. For me, there was no learning curve at all – just grab it and go. And the 3-second launch is barely noticeable. The one thing I use constantly in Photoshop that’s missing in Pixelmator is the Save for Web feature, which lets you compare multiple compression levels and their relative file sizes during the save operation. Other than that, I can see getting comfy with Pixelmator real quick.

Music: Daniel Johnston :: Some Things Last A Long Time

The Long Zoom

&tConvening themes: The world viewed as a network of digital photographers collectively shooting every square inch of the globe, the ability to stitch those images together into a cohesive, navigable, continuous view, and the world-changing cognitive power of zooming through scale, now becoming commonplace.

Dan Sandler points out that Google Street View (which is mind-blowing both in its power and its privacy implications) is not only one of the few Google apps to require Flash, it’s also “the first Google app to feature the Be Man:”

Thanks for the images Dan.

Humor, history, and coincidence aside, Street View changes the world, just a little bit for the better and a little bit for the worse. For the SF Chronicle, Mark Morford on Street View as invasive: I Can See Your Thong From Here:

Ah, Google, you great wicked benevolent super-cool vaguely disturbing Big Brother überbitch mega-company, quietly taking over the entire goddamn Net universe and most of the terrestrial world, too, one cool but simultaneously unnerving innovation at a time. … The question has been raised: How much is too much? How much implied privacy should we have as a society, as a community, as a city, and do we let this sort of technology run free simply because the draconian creepiness of it all is so easily offset by how damn fascinating and helpful and nifty a utility it so very obviously is?

Posted last August about Photosynth, a product emerging from Microsoft Labs designed not only to be a digital photo album conceptually way beyond iPhoto or Aperture, but that is also capable of intelligently stitching together images from disparate sources into zoom-able, photographic, 3-D representations of places on earth. In this video from a recent TED conference, Blaise Aguera y Arcas demonstrates a 3-D, navigable reconstruction of the cathedral at Notre Dame created by stitching together images scraped from Flickr — photos taken with everything from cell phones to high-quality SLRs, by photographers who have never met one another.

I’ve been playing a bit with Flickr Maps and looking more into the options for geotagging photos, but Photosynth blows the doors off the concepts of 2-D image-place connections, opening up a realm where all photographers on earth are unintentionally collaborating on a single, global, steerable, zoomable view that never ends.

Steven Berlin Johnson did a fascinating seminar for The Long Now Foundation (available both as podcast and as a summarized blog entry) on what he calls “the long zoom” — an entirely new way of grokking our world, started by the famous Powers of 10 and now becoming almost de rigeur thanks to emerging photo / video / vector technologies. What once blew your mind (and all previous senses of scale and proportion in the universe) with “Powers of 10” has become an increasingly commonplace quick swoop around Google Earth to find a business address.

We live in amazing times.

Music: Rickie Lee Jones :: I Was There


Some very cool stuff going on in Microsoft labs. Photosynth is an image browser from another dimension. Give it a giant pile of photos shot from anywhere within a single location (a beach, a museum…) and it will intelligently find edges, determine positions, and stitch together images into a massive 3-D soup of relationships through which users can surf, zoom, spin, dig and dive. No human intervention or tagging needed to build the relationships. Watching the demo, I’m wondering how much CPU it takes to burrow through an environment like this at reasonable speed, or how long it took to calculate the stitching (even creating high-quality QuickTime VR movies can take all night, and this is way beyond anything QTVR is capable of).

Demo is in WMV format (of course). I’ve been appreciating the Flip4Mac module that allows QuickTime to play WMV content.

Music: Marais & Miranda :: What Is A Mammal?

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Naked Eye

Think you can tell a doctored image from a fake? Popular Science links to three tests you can take to gauge your powers of discernment (the first link is fubar; correct link). First two quizzes on general imagery (mostly images I’ve seen floating around the net), the last tests your ability to tell between photographs and renderings. I scored 75-80% on the first two, 90% on last. You?

Entertaining, but raises real questions where news is concerned, especially when that news comes from less-trusted sources like blogs, but also in the realm of increasingly popular photo illustration.

Thanks Ken Light

Music: Land of the Loops :: Patience