Photosynth.net was an application that made it possible for users to capture the world in 3D using two types of tools: panoramas and synths. Having started as a research project of a University of Washington student, Photosynth was later developed by Microsoft.
If you try to find Photosynth.net today, it doesn’t take long before you receive the message, “This site can’t be reached” because “www.photosynth.net’s server IP address could not be found.” You can check your connection, proxy, firewall, and DNS configuration followed by running the Windows network diagnostic tool, but the problem will not be resolved.
What could have happened to Photosynth.net, the website that Time Magazine once named one of the 50 best websites of 2009? We took some time to find out by following the site’s history, the service it provided, and some of its notable achievements.
The idea that would later become Photosynth.net was conceived in 2006 when a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington developed a system that would take two-dimensional images and turn them into three-dimensional models of structures. The student’s name was Noah Snavely.
An MIT Technology Review article describing Photosynth reports that “Snavely created a system that could assemble such models using an unstructured assortment of images from different cameras and viewpoints.”
The MIT Technology Review also quotes Snavely explaining the idea behind Photosynth. He says, “If we can find matching points between views … we can reason about where each image was taken and what the 3-D shape of the scene is.”
For those who asked how much it cost to use Photosynth, the answer was one everybody wants to hear: “The Photosynth apps, tools, and service are all free.”
Central to the idea behind Photosynth were two concepts: panoramas and synths. According to Photosynth, the panorama helped capture everything from one location with one zoom level. The panoramic view could provide a 360° view both to the left and right. Panoramas are simple because all you have to do is go up/down, left/right, and zoom in/out.
A synth, on the other hand, was designed to capture images of different details or sides. Photosynth says that synths were more complicated to navigate because you had to move from photo to photo.
Snavely’s idea had so much potential that it captured the attention of Microsoft. In November 2006, Microsoft released a free tech preview of Photosynth into the market. In a Zdnet.com article about the tech preview, George Ou suggests that Photosynth “takes photograph viewing to a whole new level and adds positional context to your static images.”
In August 2008, Microsoft launched Photosynth for use by consumers. Josh Lowensohn writes for Cnet.com and tells the story of how Microsoft took “Photosynth from being a neat-looking technology demo to a playground for amateur photographers to build incredible 3D works.” He adds that for Photosynth, this was graduation from “its ‘ooh, that’s pretty’ status to being a viable Web service for consumers.”
Lowensohn reports that the version launched for consumers was a much-improved form of Snavely’s original idea. For instance, he notes that the previous version took weeks of processing to stitch together the photographs, and required specially arranged server arrays. In the version launched to the public, photos could be processed almost as soon as they had been uploaded.
Photosynth would continue to scale under Microsoft, attracting the attention of big names like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In a 2008 article published by ScientificAmerican.com, Larry Greenemeier reports that NASA used the technology to take photos of the Space Shuttle Endeavor from the International Space Station.
With all the attention the app was getting, it’s not surprising that Time Magazine named Photosynth among the 50 best websites of 2009.
Adam Fisher writes for Time Magazine and provides a hint as to why Photosynth was placed among the 50 best websites: “Photosynth is the first photo site that really capitalizes on that shift [from film to digital], with a new way to look at pictures.” Fisher elaborates by saying, “Instead of arranging photos in a traditional album, the site finds relationships among pictures and digitally composites them to create an immersive 3-D photo environment.”
In 2012, the app was one of the winners of the Tech Impact Awards. Other big names appearing in the same winning list included the discount real estate brokerage Redfin, the online real estate marketplace Zillow, Starbucks, and Jackson Fish Market.
Reporting for Seattle Business about the 2012 Photosynth award, Gianni Truzzi provides an idea as to why the app was befitting the award. He writes, “The mobile app uses sophisticated pattern recognition to help an unsophisticated user snap a sequence of pictures that can be stitched together to create an immersive experience that interacts with the viewer.”
In July 2015, Microsoft announced that it had decided to retire its Photosynth mobile apps. In a statement quoted by VentureBeat.com, Microsoft tells readers, “Today we are announcing that we are retiring the Photosynth mobile apps.” It adds, “We are doing this because the new Photosynth Preview technology and its cloud processing is a more immersive way to capture a place than the spherical panoramas that our apps produce.”
Even though Microsoft was terminating its mobile apps, it encouraged users to upload their panoramas to Photosynth.net because the website was still being maintained.
For those who took solace in the fact that Photosynth.net would be maintained post-the 2015 canning of Photosynth mobile apps, the 2017 news that Microsoft was discontinuing Photosynth.net must have come as a hard pill to swallow. Indications are that Microsoft decided to retire Photosynth because it had become an obsolete production that was hemorrhaging users.
On February 6, 2017, Microsoft announced, “It’s a sad day, but we knew it was coming.” The statement continues, “We closed the Photosynth service and Web site today.” These words brought to an end the website’s nine-year run.