Seadragon Mobile – Microsoft beating Apple at its own game

Dec 14, 2008 | Mobile & Web | Tech News

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In the interest of full disclosure, I was a founding member of Microsoft Live Labs and spent two years working on Seadragon and Photosynth so take that for what it’s worth. The cynics amongst you may say I’m biased but read on and you’ll discover why I think Seadragon Mobile really is a big deal.

First a little refresher on what Seadragon is, just in case you missed our earlier post about Seadragon Ajax.

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, Seadragon allows you to access vast quantities of visual data, very quickly over the web and now over the mobile web. The technology serves up as much visual data as quickly as it can and smoothly transitions to finer resolution as you zoom into a specific area. Think about instantly accessing say a 10 gigapixel scan of the Mona Lisa or 1000 images you took on your vacation at full resolution with almost no lag or delay…that’s the power of Seadragon. I’m actually surprised there isn’t more experimentation going on in this space. Now that we’ve shipped ‘lolligift‘ we’re certainly going to be putting some stuff together but not many folks have used it yet to its full potential.

It was this technology created by Blaise Aguera Y’Arcas and acquired by Microsoft in Seattle 2006 that was integrated with Phototourism (Noah Snavely, RIck Szeleski and Steve Seitz) to produce the amazing Photosynth technology. Blaise first demonstrated Seadragon and Photosynth at the 2006 TED conference and you can see the video and some example synths here.

Many of the ideas demonstrated in Seadragon were actually incorporated into a project we launched named ‘Deepfish‘ for Windows Mobile (although a different technology platform all together) that actually predated the release of the iPhone. With Deepfish we demonstrated the now commonplace method of browsing a web page and zooming into the detail of a particular section.

Today Live Labs released a free application available through the Apple AppStore named ‘Seadragon Mobile‘.

The application allows you to browse a number of canned large, hi-resolution image sets such as the Library of Congress, Mars Viking Imagery and even high resolution aerial and road maps from the Microsoft Virtual Earth Servers with performance that far outstrips the bloaty Google Earth app.

However, things get really interesting if you upload your own imagery to Photosynth or Photozoom (You can see some of my sets of Graffiti Artist Banksy and Burning Man by searching for ‘Photosynther’ in the Seadragon Mobile App).


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Basically you can now access your entire photo collection over the web on your iphone at a performance and resolution that would rival the same experience (if not faster) on your desktop. Not a bad Christmas present!

Hearty congratulations to the Seadragon Team back at Live Labs and a special shout out to Ben Vanik, a really talented developer who knocked this one together as a side project! More from Ben here.



I judge technologies on their merits and whether you’re talking about Microsoft, Apple, Google or Yahoo they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Apple excels at user interfaces but to be frank hasn’t yet built any expertise on running services (MobileMe being the examplar).

At Microsoft we spent the last 10-15 years getting our heads around services. MSN was the proving ground and a lot of that expertise migrated into Windows Live, and the Office teams. That kind of institutional knowledge doesn’t get instilled overnight and you have to make mistakes and go through the growing pains to succeed in the long run. Hotmail, Messenger, and Spaces are not trivial services.

With Seadragon you’re seeing Software and Services coming together in the vision that Rozzie and BillG have been touting for a long time. I’m not suggesting this is a product, it’s not. Seadragon is still a research incubation. But it’s not far off from being an enabling platform that could transfer the way you interact with the desktop, web and devices of the future. Also note how much more fluid and performant Seadragon is for image zooming compared to almost any application on the iPhone. Not often Microsoft bests someone on a non Microsoft platform!

I’ve demonstrated this technology to hundreds of CTO’s over the last couple of years and I can tell you now that not one of them wasn’t floored by the potential for how Seadragon could enable entirely new value for their industries.

Have a play and see what you think. If this is your first time visitng 8ninths. Welcome! I hope you like our little spot on the web, and click here if you’d like to get our bi-monthly newsletter discussing emerging trends and technologies in the future.

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  1. Dec 15, 2008 at 2:00 am

    google aerial maps | Digg hot says:

    […] Vote Seadragon Mobile- The only way to view your images on a phone […]

  2. Dec 15, 2008 at 7:12 am

    DI says:

    Impressive – do you know if there are any plans to release other apps on iphone?

  3. Dec 15, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Jay says:

    So the next question is, when will this technology be available as a control we can incorporate into our own iPhone apps?

  4. Dec 15, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    adam says:

    Can’t personally comment on any future release plans unfortunately 🙂 but you might want to post over at

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