Rome was built in a day, with hundreds of thousands of digital photos

The ancient city of Rome was not built in a day. It took nearly a decade to build the Colosseum, and almost a century to construct St. Peter's Basilica. But now the city, including these landmarks, can be digitised in just a matter of hours.

A new computer algorithm developed at the University of Washington uses hundreds of thousands of tourist photos to automatically reconstruct an entire city in about a day.

Rome was built in a day
The tool is the most recent in a series developed at the UW to harness the increasingly large digital photo collections available on photo-sharing Web sites. The digital Rome was built from 150,000 tourist photos tagged with the word "Rome" or "Roma" that were downloaded from the popular photo-sharing Web site, Flickr.

Computers analysed each image and in 21 hours combined them to create a 3-D digital model. With this model a viewer can fly around Rome's landmarks, from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon to the inside of the Sistine Chapel.

Earlier versions of the UW photo-stitching technology are known as Photo Tourism. That technology was licensed in 2006 to Microsoft, which now offers it as a free tool called Photosynth.

"With Photosynth and Photo Tourism, we basically reconstruct individual landmarks. Here we're trying to reconstruct entire cities," said co-author Noah Snavely, who developed Photo Tourism as his UW doctoral work and is now an assistant professor at Cornell University.

In addition to Rome, the team recreated the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik, processing 60,000 images in less than 23 hours using a cluster of 350 computers, and Venice, Italy, processing 250,000 images in 65 hours using a cluster of 500 computers. Many historians see Venice as a candidate for digital preservation before water does more damage to the city, the researchers said.

Image: The Colosseum as seen in the digital reconstruction. Each triangle is where a person was standing when he or she took a photo. The building's shape is determined by analysing photos taken from all these different perspectives.

Credit: University of Washington

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