In my previous post, I embedded a video of Blaise Aguera y Arcas demonstrating Microsoft’s Seadragon and Photosynth at a TED talk. Seadragon is a project to get large amounts of visual data to display on a computer screen with tremendous capacity to zoom from small thumbnails in to very close views of a digital image. As Aguera y Acras says, it shouldn’t matter how many megapixels we’re storing, only how many are displayed on the screen at a given moment.
I have the mobile version of Seadragon installed on my iPhone. There are several demonstration collections. One of them contains images of archival images from the Library of Congress. One can begin zoomed all the way out looking at thumbnails that appear to be small tiles. But as one zooms, different types of images appear. Drawings, paintings, and lithographs. Maps. Text documents. The zooming ability just seems endless. You just keep going and going, moving in to see amazing details of the images. I’ve included a few screen captures from my iPhone, but these really don’t show the wonderful smoothness of using the zoom on this software.
By contrast, I’ve been looking at a commercial product that offers digital images of newspapers, intended as a replacement for newspaper microfilm. As far as that goes, it is quite a lot better than microfilm. But the images are not reproduced with very much detail. One of our librarians commented about how the digital images of photographs in the newspaper were not very good. I think a microfilm replacement ought to skip over low-resolution reproduction of pages in PDF and go right for a high resolution solution that utilizes the kind of zooming abilities of Seadragon.
I understand that there is a significant cost consideration for creating and storing high-resolution images. It would, no doubt, have to be born by libraries if such a product were on the market. But I’m not sure a digital product that simply replicates the same level of quality of microfilm is enough of a benefit to justify the cost. In any digital collection, I like the ability to provide access to remote users. And I like the ability to copy and save information digitally. But I also want there to be another level of functionality that goes beyond analog. How can we do something that we haven’t been able to before? How can we utilize the data and metadata of digital objects in new ways? That’s what I look for in a 2.0 kind of library collection. I hope one day we can bring Seadragon-like function to all kinds of digital data.