Scientists turn millions of public photos into amazing time-lapse videos

time-lapse glacier google
Video screen capture YouTube

Google and the University of Washington are working together to bring us some of the most comprehensive and awe-inspiring time-lapse videos we've seen and their source material will surprise you. Researchers from the two partners gathered time-stamped and geo-tagged public photos from around the web (think Flickr, Picasa, etc.) in a method they're calling time-lapse mining. If you've uploaded a photo of a major landmark, whether natural or manmade, it's possible this team has seen it.

The scientists wrote powerful algorithms that have collected 86 million old photographs and shuffled and blended them to create revealing time-lapses that might not have otherwise been possible. Typically, time-lapses take a lot of, well, time. You have to set up a camera and keep taking images over a long span to adequately capture changes. By utilizing the wealth of photos uploaded to public sites in the past decade, the researchers can put together the pieces and reveal the changes without having to put in the tedious amounts of time.

It's essentially crowdsourced time-lapsing and it has captured some amazing changes like receding glaciers, drying lakes, shifting waterfalls, the building of skyscrapers and even the subtle shifting of the Wall Street bull.

“I always loved time-lapse photography, but never thought about making them myself due to all the logistical challenges,” explains Ricardo Martin to Wired, who worked alongside researchers David Gallup and Steven Seitz. “As our tools for working with internet imagery got more and more sophisticated, we found that lo and behold, it might be possible to create time-lapses from photos that people have already taken.”

“Whereas before it took months or years to create one such time-lapse, we can now almost instantly create thousands of time-lapses covering the most popular places on Earth,” the researchers wrote in a published paper on the project."

Lest you think that you could take on time-lapse mining yourself, the processing of those tens of millions of photos took hundreds of terabytes of power and that's not to mention the sophisticated algorithms necessary to make each image of a specific place look as though it was shot from the same exact angle.

The software also had to be able to handle incorrect timestamps and work around obstacles in the view like people posing in front of monuments.

The hard work paid off though and the team was able to construct 11,000 videos from the millions of photos covering a timespan from five to ten years in length with a good chunk of those revealing interesting transformations, even if very subtle.

You can watch a sampling of those below.

Scientists turn millions of public photos into amazing time-lapse videos
Google is partnering with researchers to create time-lapse videos for studying our changing world.

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