Monday, March 23, 2015

Tokyo as you've never seen it before




The Tokyo Tower Gigapixel Panorama is a thing to be admired, to marvel at. From a single vantage point, the viewer is able to enjoy a 360-degree view of the Tokyo cityscape, with full tilting and rotation: you can look up at the sky or down at your feet, on the platform at the top of the tower from which the photograph was taken. Although ‘photograph’ is a grossly inadequate descriptor. The panorama is a composite of thousands of individual photographs. What is truly astonishing, however, is its resolution: the image is 600,000 pixels wide and consists of 150 gigapixels in total. If these numbers do not make sense to you, what they mean in practice is that you can zoom in without appreciable loss of detail on any single focal point, looking through windows and reading shop signs or the number plates of cars.






The effect is a kind of vertigo. This is the world at a resolution greater than 1:1, a world that we could not possibly experience through our senses. It is like looking at the whole of humanity through a microscope and still seeing a coherent picture

The Tokyo Tower project is part of a series called 360 Cities which includes two more 150-gigapixel images (one set in London, the other a different view of Tokyo) and a series of panoramas at a lower resolution from various world locations. In time, we could expect these ultra-high definition images to become more common, just as the detailed aerial mapping of urban centres on Google Maps was initially limited to select American cities, and now includes most towns in the West with a population over a few thousand.

The hard limits on these projects are computing power and the physical capacity of storage media and servers, both of which multiply at rates that are well-known. So all that remains are the cultural and social limits of our desire to see the world represented in this hyper-detailed way. But these too are fragile barriers, always ready to be pushed back.

Consider how easy it was for Google to introduce its Street View service, of which everyone could see the practicality, but also the glaring Orwellian implications (it took some time for the company to be persuaded by privacy regulators to blur faces and car plate numbers). You may have even seen one of those dystopian Google vans mounted with dozens of cameras drive slowly through your suburb, as I have.

Street View is utterly normalised now. It is but one in a vast array of mapping tools that help us navigate our cities and occasionally explore distant ones, or return to childhood neighbourhoods. It has even spawned its own subculture of virtual explorers who travel in Street View and document strange events which Google’s vans photographed but no-one actually saw or noticed (Simon Sellars has written beautifully about all this). Here, more than with Orwell, the association is with Hitchcock, and perhaps the Tokyo panorama, too, is a vast rear window waiting to be pored over in search of evidence of a crime.


Jeff Martin of 360 Cities has produced another fascinating ultra-high resolution picture, this time of an interior. It is the main room of the Strahov monastery library in Prague, Czech Republic, and at 40 gygapixels it is billed as the largest – that is to say, most detailed – indoor picture ever produced. Like the Tokyo panorama, it’s a wonderful object to play with and just as vertigo-inducing, as rapid, dramatic increases in the level of magnification never result in a grainy or blurry picture. It is as if your eyes re-adjusted to an entirely different environment every time the image is refreshed.


There is, besides, genuine pleasure to be had in luxuriating over the intricate detail of the gilded mouldings. Then there is the wall-to-wall display of books. Of these you can admire the leather-bound spines and read the titles, but no more. The very objects that the room is designed to hold and preserve are off limits to the camera, therefore to our virtual presence. They are like buildings we can only view from the outside, their curtains drawn.


The detail may seem insignificant – even obvious – except ultra-high definition photography is an index of the will to knowledge of our epoch. The limits of this knowledge, when we encounter them, serve as pointed, ironic reminders of the limits of our culture.

We have invented the means of transporting vision, so that wherever you may live, you can sit in the main room of a late medieval Czech monastery library and explore it inch by inch – save for the fact that you cannot open or access any of the thousands of books on its shelves. At least for now. But you can always plot the next step. You can already anticipate the future functionality, and how tapping on one of the spines will call up the contents of the relevant book, either in the form of digitised text or as a series of scanned images that bring to life each convolution of the script and the minute texture of the paper. This is technically achievable, therefore culturally desirable. Someone will see to it eventually.

To have perfect knowledge of this world as a mosaic of static images of virtually infinite resolution is ironic in another respect: for this vast archive of the immediate present sets store in political and social stasis – or anything that will prevent the pictures from changing.

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