Sandia LabNews

Labs computational scientists team with artists to capture and display gigapixel-sized images

An eclectic group of artists and scientists that organizers have dubbed the “dream team” of imaging and visualization gathered at New York University last month to begin to create a photographic system capable of capturing and displaying a gigapixel — one billion pixels — of visual information.

The first Big Picture Summit, Dec. 8 and 9, was organized by artist-photographer Clifford Ross and co-hosted by the Computer Science Research Institute at Sandia and the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Ross says his goal in bringing together top imaging experts from leading scientific institutions is to bring closer to reality his desire to create a “you are there” photographic experience for those who have not personally witnessed the sublime beauty of natural scenes such as Mt. Sopris in Colorado.

“In the early 15th century, the impulse to render flesh more realistically drove the artist Jan van Eyck to invent oil paint,” says Ross. “The same sort of impulse is driving me, except that I’m trying to capture a mountain. Pixels are simply 21st century oil paint.”

Gaining insight

The computational scientists at Sandia who are collaborating on the project believe a display system of the magnitude proposed by Ross will enhance the ability of scientists to visualize and gain insight from massively complex data sets that can be understood only through human intuition, ranging from supercomputer- generated simulations of a weapon’s physics to high-resolution satellite imagery.

The display would provide an overall view of images at a very large scale while allowing viewers to perceive extremely fine detail.

“We have a lot in common with an artist like Clifford Ross and his quest to make extremely detailed images that evoke a powerful emotional response,” says Carl Diegert of Data Analysis and Visualization Dept. 9227. “We want to understand from an intuitive standpoint what it is that enables viewers to gain insight — for example, a visual metaphor that makes a human viewer comfortable and thus better able to interact with an image. Computer science alone is not likely to invent a means for scientists to intuitively comprehend highly complex problems.”

“My own goal is to fill the eye with so much information that it overflows and reaches the human heart,” adds Ross. “Art is emotional, but the path is technical, and virtually all the scientists involved in this effort know more about the technical aspects of imaging than I do.”

Major implications

Ross’ newly patented R1 camera system, which broke through the gigapixel barrier, has achieved some of the highest resolution single-shot images ever created, he says. (Efforts by other photographers have digitally melded many smaller images taken over a period of time into single sweeping, gigapixel-sized landscape images.)

The quality of the first landscape images created with the R1 — the “Mountain” series — convinced many of the scientists involved in the
summit to join in the effort, says Carl.

The 15 professionals invited by Ross to participate in the summit include renowned artists, scientists and engineers from government agencies, and digital imagery experts from the entertainment and film industries.

The project could have major implications for all industries that rely on precise imaging, including environmental science, space exploration, telecommunications, and homeland security, says Carl.

An electronic Sistine ceiling

The project has two parts. The first is to design and build a new camera, building on concepts embodied in the R1, that can capture a gigapixel of digital information at a speed of 1/15th of a second or faster.

The second part is to build the display system, which Ross likens to building an “electronic Sistine ceiling.” It will have 16 times greater data display capabilities than the VIEWS Corridor display system (download image) currently in use at Sandia

The summit is expected to result in a concrete agenda and working group, which would then be funded by interested individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies with an interest in the practical implications of Ross’ quest.