Microsoft tools for photographers

I recently visited Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab on JJ Thomson Avenue and spent a fascinating day learning about some of the cutting edge work they’re doing on cloud computing, medical image classification and cellular programming. MD Andrew Herbert introduced a bunch of journalists and other interested parties to their approach and philosophy and then we got to see several demos.

But, it was the tools aimed at images and photography that will be of most interest to Imaging Storm readers. First demo was from INRIA scientist Ivan Laptev who showed me how to search for similar images in a 10-million image database in a split second and no machine learning was involved. (Demo’d by Ivan Laptev of INRIA). They’re also working on a trained system that can identify particular actions in video clips (people drinking, sitting, walking etc).

The second tool, which is now available as version 2009 for some people who buy a new Windows7 machine is Autocollage, which creates, as the name suggests a collage from a collection of photos, great for scrapbooking, birthday celebrations, holiday letters and (apparently) funeral services! Demo’d by MS Cambridge’s Allison Sol, who mentioned the funereal interest and also lamented the fact that Microsoft cannot simply bundle all these useful tools into the Windows OS. If you’re using Windows Live Photo Gallery, you can grab a trial of AutoCollage 2008 via that extra tools section.

The third tool was Remove Background, which is now built into Office 2010 and does something that even Photoshop experts have struggled with over the years, which is to select an object of interest and remove the background and allow you to manipulate the object (changing colour, tone, shadowing etc) very quickly and pretty much automatically. They’re even working on an extension that will “get” whispy hair, something of a mythological tool for photo-artists (Demo’d by Carsten Rother). Alpha matting evaluation site shows some of the potential.