The Global Connection Project: Stitching Together Images and Cultures
A First Person Perspective
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what's an interactive, multibillion-pixel panoramic image worth? The answer: a global connection.
Carnegie Mellon researchers, in collaboration with NASA, Google, and National Geographic, have launched the Global Connection Project to "encourage global citizenship and understanding by connecting people, places, and events through the utilization, exploration, and sharing of dynamically viewable images."
Explorable images provide a critical first-person perspective to storytelling and cross-cultural learning, according to Carnegie Mellon's Illah Nourbakhsh, co-principal investigator of the project. By placing yourself in another world, stories move beyond narratives and issues become personal and engaging. As the name suggests, the Global Connection Project is really about bridging the gaps in physical and cultural distance.
The project took root when Nourbakhsh, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, was on sabbatical at the NASA Ames (Silicon Valley) Research Center. As a leader in the field of ethics in robotics, Nourbakhsh wondered how he could use technology for something useful and social.
To help answer the question, Nourbakhsh asked his research team what they would do with unlimited resources. Randy Sargent, a research scientist at Ames who has since moved to Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley, proposed using global imaging technology to make people think about each other and the world—essentially laying the groundwork for the Global Connection Project. Sargent's work in visualization and image analysis has been instrumental to his role as co-Principal Investigator of the Global Connection team.
Global Imaging Technology
Supported in large part by a generous gift from Google, the project utilizes software developed at Carnegie Mellon to overlay high-resolution aerial images onto Google Earth, creating powerfully-explorable spatial images that have aided in relief efforts following some of the world's worst natural disasters. For example, rescuers were able to plan access routes through damaged terrain following a 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, thanks to immediate aerial and satellite imaging. Without such technology, relief would have taken days more to reach those in need, particularly where the mountainous landscape was devastated by landslides. And in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southeastern United States, the technology allowed evacuees to check on their homes and communities online.
Complementing the disaster relief imaging capability has been the potential to use the software as a tool to promote global community activism. To do so, the Global Connection team brought on board a world leader in imaging and evocative storytelling, National Geographic. Their involvement has resulted in hundreds of geo-located interactive stories that incorporate exotic photographs from around the globe, including Mike Fay's sensational Africa MegaFlyover. In 2004, the biologist and explorer collected thousands of images from a Cessna 182 while traversing the airspace over the continent to encourage conservationism in one of the "last wild places on earth."
In addition to National Geographic's unparalleled archive, Nourbakhsh hopes to include more non-professional storytellers in the project to strengthen the local, first-person perspective. "One thing we’re interested in," he said, "is a shift in authorship from the professional to the public. We want to capture other people’s point of view."
Stitching Together Images and Cultures
But to see the world through someone else's eyes—particularly underrepresented populations—affordable, quality technology is needed. Favorably, the Global Connection team found a way to make images widely accessible by building on technology developed at NASA for the Mars Exploration Rovers: the Gigapan camera. The Gigapan is a low-cost, high-performance system for capturing very high-resolution (gigapixel and higher) panoramic images from a digital camera. Software then stitches together hundreds of images and allows users to explore, annotate, and share images with each other.
Two versions of the Gigapan have been used in coordination with the project: the consumer Gigapan and the time-lapse Gigapan. The consumer version offers an affordable robotic camera mount that is compatible with nearly all digital cameras. The time lapse Gigapan, on the other hand, is a fully autonomous version, which allows image exploration in both space and time.
On October 5, the project will hold a simultaneous gallery show of cross-cultural learning, which will be the premier showcase of citizens tapping Gigapan technology to engage a global community. Student authors on three continents have been exchanging photos and conversations about the prints for six months, adding to each other's perspectives. The public is encouraged to attend, and will even be able to add to the conversations. The shows will take place at A.I.R. Gallery, Pittsburgh; MuseuMAfrica, South Africa; and the UNESCO Gallery, Trinidad and Tobago.
"They're essentially pen pals for the technological age," Nourbakhsh said of the students.
The Global Connection Project hopes to expand throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and worldwide. For more information, contact the project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Destroyed Highway 90 bridge in Biloxi, MI. Photo courtesy NOAA; The Waffle at Burning Man 2006 panorama by James Bell.