Microsoft’s Seadragon invades iPhone territory

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Microsoft’s Seadragon invades iPhone territory

Redmond (WA) – Microsoft released its first iPhone application this past weekend. But Seadragon Mobile is not only testing iPhone waters, also represents an impressive new technology that can impact the way how extremely large images can be transferred effortlessly to a handset screen over a regular cellular network.

Seadragon is one of those experimental technologies that were created under the radar of market watchers, but carry the rare potential to impress even the most spoiled journalists. According to Microsoft, the goal of Seadragon is to “change the way we use screens, from wall-sized displays all the way down to cell phones, so that graphics and photos are smoothly browsed, regardless of the amount of data or the bandwidth of the network.”

Although the technology has been limited to Microsoft’s Photosynth 3D image mash-ups, a dedicated iPhone application now pushes Seadragon into a much broader user base.

Released as a tech preview, the free Seadragon Mobile application for the iPhone and iPod touch lets users browse high-resolution image data smoothly and quickly with common gestures like a flick or a pinch. “Explore massive galaxies, pore over maps, or flip through collection of photographs, all over the air,” said Microsoft. Our first test confirmed that Microsoft’s claim is not an exaggeration: In fact, Seadragon Mobile is one of the best-written network-enabled applications for the iPhone we have seen so far. The smoothness and speed at which it acquires pixel data over a 3G cellular network even surpasses the Maps application that comes as a default feature on the iPhone.

In a nutshell, the Seadragon engine works by transferring only those pixels needed to fill the screen of a target device, whether it is a 3.5” smartphone display or a 30” LCD. In a way, Seadragon is a small “window” that you move across a much larger image that is stored on servers in Microsoft’s proprietary Photo HD format. When you zoom or pan an image, the application contacts the server to retrieve new pixel data to reflect the changed zoom level or a modified position. Since only the pixels necessary to fill a display travel across the network, mobile phone users can typically expect a smooth display of data over a Wi-Fi or 3G cellular network.

The feature set of Seadragon Mobile for iPhone includes browsing, zooming and panning massive image collections on Microsoft’s servers, dubbed Deep Zooms, ranging from images from the Library of Congress and Milwaukee documents, to aerial satellite maps and deep space images.

The application also supports browsing Photosynth 3D collections as 2D thumbnails that can be zoomed in and panned, but Microsoft has yet to enable this feature on its servers. Seadragon Mobile allows users to subscribe to Deep Zoom via RSS feeds and add their own PhotoZoom or Deep Zoom composer content. Microsoft said that the purpose of the application is to show off the “what if?” of mobile user experiences, adding that it is preparing more “cool stuff” from Live Labs in the future.