Gigapixel photography has emerged as an affordable and effective way to make absurdly detailed high resolution images, but to really immerse yourself in a gigapixel image, you need two things: an imposingly large display wall, and a second gigapixel image to render the whole thing in stereo 3D. We found this combination at Siggraph, and it's epic.
The KAUST display wall comes from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. It consists of 14 3D displays stacked together to make a partial hemisphere, along with some hardware for tracking your head. You put on glasses and a hat with optical markers on it, and you can stand in front of this thing and look around and the insanely high resolution and 3D effects combine to make you feel like you're actually somewhere else. It's really sort of incredible.
The hardware inside the video wall, were you to outfit your living room with one, would run you somewhere "between $50,000 and $80,000," we were told by Dr. Steven Cutchin, manager of the KAUST visualization lab. Beside the display itself, the other half of the magic comes from a specially modified Gigapan system that puts two cameras together approximately eye-width apart. This is where the stereo data comes from:
Using this system, we were told, allows KAUST to create immersive content that's an order of magnitude better quality than anything else out there.
It must be nice being the King of something. You get to do things like decree that an awesome university should exist in your country, and then a couple years later, BAM, you've got an awesome university. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah did exactly that with KAUST, which is only three years old, but nonetheless boasts a 9,000 acre campus packed with futuristic buildings and lightly less futuristic graduate students (but they're working on it). KAUST also hosts one of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet, which is a good thing, since it takes a lot of image processing to render these immersive 3D environments.
The visualization lab at KAUST has been working to use this technology to record historical sites, with the hope of being able to offer virtual immersive tours to those of us who may not live next door to Saudi Arabia (or lots of other places). It may even be possible to create versions of these sites that have been digitally restored to how they were when new. And eventually, the plan is to transition from gigapixel static images to environments that are seamlessly navigable in ultra-high resolution, and if they can somehow get rid of those bezels and integrate a multi-directional treadmill, it really will be almost exactly like being there.
All photos by Evan Ackerman for DVICE, on location at SIGGRAPH 2012 in Los Angeles, California.