NASA and Microsoft provide 3D tour of International Space Station

WASHINGTON, DC – NASA will today release an interactive, 3D photographic collection of internal and external views of the International Space Station and a model of the next Mars rover. The pictures come thanks to an integration of Microsoft’s Photosynth technology and Virtual Earth that will also allow ordinary users to generate 3D views of places around the world.

NASA and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth team developed the facility using hundreds of photographs and Microsoft’s Photosynth photo imaging technology. Using a click-and-drag interface, viewers can zoom in to see details of the space station’s modules and solar arrays or zoom out for a more global view of the complex.

“Photosynth brings the public closer to our spaceflight equipment and hardware,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The space station pictures are not simulations or graphic representations but actual images taken recently by astronauts while in orbit. Although you’re not flying 220 miles above the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, it allows you to navigate and view amazing details of the real station as though you were there.”

The Mars rover imagery gives viewers an opportunity to preview the hardware of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, currently being assembled for launch to the Red Planet in 2011. The NASA Photosynth collection also includes shuttle Endeavour preparing for its STS-118 mission in August 2008.

The images can be viewed at NASA’s Photosynth collection and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth website.

While wandering through the station, the public can join in a scavenger hunt. NASA has a list of items that can be found in the Photosynth collection, including a station crew patch, a spacesuit and a bell that is traditionally used to announce the arrival of a visiting spacecraft. Clues to help in the hunt will be posted on NASA’s Facebook page and @NASA on Twitter.

Photosynth software allows the combination of up to thousands of regular digital photos of a scene to present a detailed 3D model of a subject, giving viewers the sensation of smoothly gliding around the scene from every angle. A collection can be constructed using photos from a single source or multiple sources.

Photosynth software analyzes digital photographs and generates a 3D model by “stitching” the photos together. These models, or “synths,” can now be viewed using Silverlight technology across multiple platforms. The commercial update includes new controls that enable users to decide where and how they share synths by making synths public or unlisted. This allows organizations to manage the availability and access to synths, giving greater control over the visual representation of their places and premises. Synths can now include user-defined highlights to showcase key images and improve navigation.

Potential applications of the new offering include real estate, tourism and hospitality, retail, media and entertainment, ppublic sector and internal business use.