Enter the Seadragon

Nov 24, 2008 | Mobile & Web | Tech News


Seadragon was a Seattle based company that we acquired at Microsoft Live Labs in 2006. Blaise Aguera y’Arcas had assembled a very talented team of individuals to create a powerful new zooming technology named ‘Seadragon’.

The aim of Seadragon is nothing less than to change the way we use screens, from wall-sized displays all the way down to cell phones, so that graphics and photos are smoothly browsed, regardless of the amount of data or the bandwidth of the network.

Consider the following four “promises” of Seadragon:

  1. Speed of navigation is independent of the size or number of objects.
  2. Performance depends only on the ratio of bandwidth to pixels on the screen.
  3. Transitions are smooth as butter.
  4. Scaling is near perfect and rapid for screens of any resolution.

In leymans terms. You can display multiple massively high resolution images in a browser and zoom into the fine detail in a fraction of a second… Think about how long it takes to typically open hundreds of images on a standard machine or how much memory a multi gigapixel image consumes when you open it.

Seadragon only loads the pixels that are relevant to the area that you’re currently viewing. As you use the mousewheel to zoom deeper into the image the appropriate high resolution tiles are streamed in and some neat visual tricks are employed such as foveated blending in order to transition between the low and high resolution tiles. Essentially Seadragon serves up as much as it can, as soon as it can.

I spent a couple of years at Live Labs showing the power of this and other technologies such as Photosynth (Seadragon is used for the zooming techniques of Photosynth) to hundreds of CTO’s. It never failed to impress but not everyone understood its potential. When we first demonstrated it to Bill Gates he was fascinated by the possibilities of adding a slick zooming paradigm into the traditional modalities we have for interacting with the desktop giving many suggestions for the team to explore.

Much of the original code was ported into Silverlight 2.0 which provides some enhanced capabilities but have the downside of requiring a plugin to be installed. On November 18th Live Labs finally released an AJAX version Seadragon dubbed, ‘Seadragon Ajax‘. The new release provides much of the core value of Seadragon without requiring any plugin and essentially functioning perfectly in any Javascript capable browser.

The guys at Live Labs have put together a great little set of tools to enable you to quickly create your own imagery allowing you to easily embed it into your own blog or website.

Congratulations to the whole Seadragon team at Live Labs for getting this puppy out the door! And a special congratulations to Ian Gilman who blew everyone away when he knocked this together in his spare time many months ago! You might also want to check out the Deep Zoom blog by the talented Lutz Gerhard, Lead PM at Seadragon.

See the examples below of the Carina Nebula (A 423 Megapixel image) as well as a demo of an interface streaming in tiles from Microsoft Virtual Earth. You can create your own embed by following the instructions here.

Easiest to use the mouse wheel to zoom in or =/- buttons. Use the expand button in bottom right to go to full screen (esc to return)



If you have an iphone you already understand the power of using zoom as a new way of interacting with a user interface. With a pinch of your fingers you are rapidly able to zoom into a web page, photograph or map in a fraction of a second. Curiously, Apple has yet to bring the same functionality to OSX or Safari, although who knows, maybe Snow Leopard will have some tricks up its sleeves.

Regardless of who delivers what and when, one thing is clear. This is a paradigm that will stick and become increasingly commonplace in the next generation of user interfaces. I’ve always dreamt of a giant universal canvas that I can instantly display information upon, shuffle and organize as I see fit and manipulate in the same way one views objects in the physical world. Jeff Han was a pioneer in this space and you may have seen some of his fancy ‘Magic Wall’ screens in the recent CNN election coverage.

g-speak from Oblong Industries is another group that is very far ahead in this space as you can see in the video below.

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

This is the kind of stuff that gets us geeks all hot and bothered and frankly we have a ton of ideas here at 8ninths on how these new technologies can be used to create entirely new value for everything from productivity applications to entertainment…Watch this space.

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