Scanning Gigapan's Horizons

Researchers are picturing scientific uses for camera system, software

The GigaPan system makes it easy to generate giant panoramas using everyday digital cameras, but even it has its limits. Laura Tomokiyo, project scientist with the Robotics Institute, learned that the hard way --- on the North Slope of Alaska.

It turns out that the batteries powering the robotic camera mount are no match for the bitter cold of Alaska in March. "You can't be outside setting up a camera when it's 50 degrees below zero," Tomokiyo says. The cold sapped power from the batteries before GigaPan could complete its photographic sweep of the horizon.

Nevertheless, Tomokiyo's visit to Barrow, Alaska --- America's northernmost community ---  convinced her that GigaPan has a role to play in documenting the culture and language of the native Inupiat people. This summer, members of the Inupiaq Heritage and Language Center have taken advantage of the warmer weather to gather GigaPan images of the isolated villages that dot the 94,700-square-mile North Slope.
"We hope this project will provide a good opportunity for youth and elders to work together," she says. "The youth may provide leadership in the use of the technology, but they also will be looking to the elders to share their knowledge of history and tradition in the documentation of the panoramas."

Tomokiyo, who earned her Ph.D. in language technologies at Carnegie Mellon in 2001, made the 20-hour trip to Barrow in hopes of finding ways that GigaPan panoramas could be used to study and preserve the endangered Inupiaq language.

Bilingual interpreters are commonly used to elicit lists of important words from native speakers, she says, but the method tends to be biased toward the dominant language. "Even if someone is bilingual, they will think about things differently when talking to English speakers," Tomokiyo says.

The use of GigaPan images, which allows users to zoom in on details, might eliminate this bias by allowing people who speak only Inupiaq to point out objects or activities of interest and name them. An example of such an image would be a GigaPan that Tomokiyo produced of workers preparing seal skins for use on a umiak --- a large seafaring canoe used for whaling.

Other scientific uses of GigaPan were explored in May during the Fine Outreach for Science, a workshop in Pittsburgh sponsored by the Fine Foundation that brought together 29 paleontologists, geologists, climatologists, primatologists and other researchers from around the world. One had used GigaPan to image rock paintings in Kazakhstan. Another modified the GigaPan mount so that it controlled a scanning electron microscope, making it possible to image an entire fly magnified 500 times.

The GigaPan system --- a robotic camera mount that triggers the camera to take numerous photographs of a scene and a software package that electronically stitches the images into a panorama --- was created by the Global Connection Project to help people communicate across cultures.

Last year, for instance, the project launched the GigaPan School Exchange, in which students from schools in Pittsburgh, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago shared GigaPans of their communities with each other. This 21st Century "pen pal" program is expanding this fall, with schools in Brazil and Indonesia joining the group. In the Pittsburgh area, the Falk School in Oakland will be joined by students at Propel charter schools and South Fayette, Burgettstown and Connellsville middle and high schools.

Broadband connections on the North Slope are poor, so the ability of students there to take full advantage of such an exchange would be difficult, Tomokiyo says. Even so, she's thinking about ways to make it happen, such as timing student use to coincide with periods of low Internet traffic. In the meantime, the GigaPan archive will document the culture and activities of the North Slope and reside on computers there, rather than be accessible via the Internet.

The archive is funded through the IHLC by the U.S. Department of Education's Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations, or ECHO, initiative.

"We will return to Barrow at the time of the fall whaling season to wrap up, document cultural activities related to this event and explore possibilities for the next phase," Tomokiyo says.
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |