Unusual photo and video effects from Microsoft

Lincoln Spector

Digital photography gives us the freedom to take hundreds of photos and videos of places and people, at very little expense — so many images, that family and friends might be blasé at best about your latest efforts.

But three little-known apps from Microsoft can put some unexpected novelty back into your images.

Microsoft’s department of unusual software

Most of the images we take get little more than an adjustment here and there. But today’s image-editing tools let you do things with photos you never could do with film. Surprisingly, some of the more oddball image/video-editing tools can be found at Microsoft Research, a place where all kinds of curious applications are created and tested. Some of the more successful apps become official Microsoft products. Most of the apps are for exceptionally technical uses, but a few will appeal to average PC users.

Three examples are Photosynth, Image Composite Editor, and Cliplets. The first two let you (with the help of a supporting website) turn multiple photos into a single interactive experience. Your jaded friends might be impressed by the ability to view photographed objects from various angles and to scroll through a scene too wide to fit on the screen.

Cliplets can take a normal video and freeze parts of the image at a single frame while allowing other parts of the image to continue moving. You don’t need a special Microsoft website to share these videos; YouTube will do.

These are specialty programs that do particular jobs. They’re not vital for practicing the art and craft of photography, but they’re fun.

Photosynth: Examining a subject from all sides

In real life, we typically examine objects by moving them around — or moving ourselves — to see their fronts, sides, and backs. Try that with a photograph, and all you’ll get is the blank side of a print or the wrong end of a monitor.

Photosynth — a combination of software and website — lets you create a rough analog of that real-world experience. To get an idea of how this works, check out my flower-bouquet study on the Photosynth site, shown in Figure 1. Note how the image rotates to a slightly different perspective when you click an arrow. The results are far from perfect but fun to play with. (The site does a better job of displaying panoramas, as discussed in the following section.)

Flowers captured in Photosynth

Figure 1. Photosynth lets you combine images into a rough, 3D-like experience

How do you create these sorts of images-in-the-round? You take lots of pictures with your camera or smartphone and then run them through the Photosynth software. It uploads them onto the website for viewing. You need a Microsoft account (Hotmail, Messenger, MSN, etc.) to upload the images, but not for viewing your creations.

For the best results, take a lot of photos from angles that overlap each other considerably. My first three attempts to create a Photosynthed image resulted in pathetically constricted views. I uploaded 44 pictures to get a decently maneuverable image of those flowers.

When the Photosynth software finishes uploading your pictures, it gives the collection a grade — a percentage rating of how “synthy” it is. My first two tests, with not nearly a sufficient number of images, received 0 percent. My best effort (with the 44 images) earned a 60 percent rating.

Not all subjects are Photosynth-appropriate. Forget about using it to photograph people or — I’m sorry to say — cats. This is strictly a still-life technique. Because Photosynth uses colors and textures to compare photos, shiny and smooth objects don’t work well, either.

Although Photosynth is still listed on the Microsoft Research site, it’s officially part of the Bing Maps group, giving it a sort of official-product status. On a Microsoft Research page, Photoshop users can find a Photosynth plug-in that uploads panoramic images.

Image Composite Editor: For wide experiences

Landscapes are almost always wider than your camera’s lens can encompass — even with a superwide-angle lens. Creating a digital panoramic image typically involves taking a photo, turning a bit, taking another photo, and repeating the process until you’ve captured the scene. You then use special software (which might be in your camera or phone to begin with) to stitch these multiple images into one long photo.

Microsoft Research’s Image Composite Editor (ICE) is a particularly good panorama-stitcher — and it’s free. (Windows Live Photo Gallery [free; site] includes a moderately good stitcher, and Panorama Maker [site] is an excellent app. But unless Panorama Maker was packaged with your camera, it will cost U.S. $80 after a 15-day free trial.) ICE (home page) lets you adjust the perspective, select whether the camera was rotated or moved on a plane, and otherwise control how the pictures are stitched together. Select Perspective from the Projection menu, and the picture acquires a smilebox (more info) appearance, giving it the illusion of a curved screen with enhanced peripheral vision.

Image Composite Editor

Figure 2. Image Composite Editor lets you build panoramas in various ways.

Microsoft Research developed separate 32- (site) and 64-bit (site) versions of ICE; be sure to download the right one for your system.

After you’ve created your widescreen spectacular, you can export it to a number of different picture formats, including .jpg, .png, and .psd (Photoshop). Or, if you’ve installed Photosynth, you can upload your landscape to the Photosynth website. There, your friends can pan across it in a curving field (which feels far more realistic than scrolling across a rectangular box) and zoom in to see fine details in the picture. To see this in action, check out this view I caught from the top of a local landmark, shown in Figure 3.

Pano on Photosynth

Figure 3. You can interactively view ICE panoramas in Photosynth.

I do wish ICE could accept panoramic shots stitched together elsewhere (for instance, inside my phone). I have quite a few of them that could use that curved perspective, but the program won’t process images already stitched.

Cliplets: Not everything in a movie has to move

Almost all digital cameras can take both still photos and videos. But usually those two formats never meet in one place. Cliplets — the name refers to both the program and the media files it creates — changes that. It allows you to turn a video into a still image with one or more moving objects.

Having trouble grasping that concept? Take a look at this simple cliplet (Figure 4) I posted to YouTube.

Figure 4. Using Cliplets to merge video and digital stills into unusual movies

You undoubtedly noticed that the seagull is rapidly bobbing his head. What you might have missed is that the waves behind him aren’t moving. You’ll find other examples, most of them far more impressive than my own, at the YouTube Cliplets Gallery.

As with ICE, Cliplets comes in separate 32- (site) and 64-bit (site) versions. Both require Microsoft’s Visual C++ Runtime Libraries. If they’re not installed, the Cliplets installation software will direct you to the correct page. Fortunately, the Libraries and Cliplets are quick and easy setups.

The first step in creating a Cliplet is loading a video. If it’s longer than 10 seconds (the program’s maximum), a dialog box helps you pick out a shorter segment. Unfortunately, you’ll have no way to shorten the video after it’s been transformed into a cliplet.

Next, look through the video and select a single frame for the background. Cliplets works in layers, and the first (base) layer is always a still.

Now add new layers, each of which starts with the full video. In each layer, use the drawing tool (see Figure 5) to create a mask around the object you want to move. (The unmasked parts of the layer will become invisible.) Next, select how much of the video should play (such as a particular half-second clip), whether and how the action is repeated, and at what speed.

Cliplet masking

Figure 5. Cliplet uses masking to define objects that will move.

For instance, my seagull epic has only two layers. The first is the still-image background. The second, is my masked bird; I selected less than a second of head bobbing, set Mirror mode (repeating the action forward then backward), and speeded up the head bob.

You can save a Cliplet in the program’s native format for future editing. But that’s a working format — not suitable for sharing. To let others see what you’ve created, export the clip as a .mp4 or .wmv video file. That way, you can upload it to YouTube or enhance it in other ways. Cliplets’ smoothing technology eliminates most handheld problems.

The Cliplets application has plenty of rough edges. It’s not easy to learn; I strongly recommend viewing the five tutorial videos (site). It’s workable only if specific objects that should move don’t overlap objects that should remain motionless. Worse, the app is not stable. Two of the clips I tried consistently crashed the program. Fortunately, they didn’t take anything else down with them.

In other words, I probably wouldn’t use Cliplets for any serious production work. That said, it is fun to play around with — especially if you have suitable video that could use some enhancement.

Cliplets might eventually rise to the usefulness of Photosynth and ICE. That’s the nature of apps cooking in Microsoft Research.

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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.