Around the World with Nathan Myhrvold (and His Camera)

7/23/08Follow @gthuang

This week Nathan Myhrvold published some of the most stunning pictures I’ve seen in a long time. They’re compiled in a photo essay, entitled “Panoramas and Photo Technology from Iceland and Greenland,” on John Brockman’s Edge.org site. Besides the gorgeous scenery, what I found interesting was the technology behind creating these pictures, particularly the panoramic shots put together from individual pictures using photo-stitching software—a topic that Wade explored in his column last month.

Myhrvold, the CEO and founder of Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures (and an Xconomist), is a serious photographer who counts paleontology, cooking, and race-car driving among his other hobbies. He recently returned from his travels around the North Atlantic, and it has taken him a few weeks to properly process the images. “My day job keeps getting in the way of my photography,” he quips in the piece.

A key point Myhrvold makes is that he is able to find and buy photo software from all over the world—through companies like Focus Magic (New Zealand), Downloader Pro (UK), Focal Blade (Germany), Real Viz (France), Neat Image (Russia), and even a Brazilian model named Fred Miranda who writes Photoshop software. “Sometimes it is a hobby business or sideline, but a lot of these people make a living writing and selling this imaging software over the Internet,” he writes. “One can argue whether it takes a across-the-highlands500village to make a child, as Hillary famously said. It definitely takes software from a whole world full of geeks to make a state of the art photo.”

Myhrvold’s photo descriptions go into incredible technical detail about things like sensor cleaning, managing dynamic range of lighting, noise reduction, and photo indexing—and how to do each just right. Just when you think you can’t read any more, though, he throws in a personal anecdote. “Like the other techniques, stitched panoramas have an issue with movement—if the subject moves while you are taking the multiple photos you have a problem,” he writes. “In the Falkland Islands last year an enterprising penguin moved fast enough between shots that he appears twice in one picture.” (There’s no solution for such penguins, but things like distortion and printing problems can usually be handled.)

west-fjords5001Wade points out that some of the landscapes have similarities to the surface of Mars, as revealed by the NASA rovers and the recent Phoenix lander mission—they look utterly foreign. For me, the pictures lend credence to The Onion‘s satirical description of Iceland as a land where there is no “ice” to speak of—the country’s name being just a ploy to keep outsiders from discovering its spectacular scenery, natural resources, and outdoor hot tubs. Thanks to Myhrvold’s technical know-how, we know better.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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