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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
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The First Gigapanorama of Pittsburgh

David Bear
David Bear

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Behold! It's a vista that no one has ever seen, even though it has been here for 40 years.
    
Yes, that's the new ConSol Energy Center on both the right and left ends of the picture. In between is Pittsburgh's entire circle on Earth.  
    
This first Pittsburgh Gigapanorama is an interactive, 360-degree portrait of southwest Pennsylvania as seen from the roof of the U. S. Steel Tower. Assembled from over 4000 individual pictures taken on the morning of October 19, 2009, this photograph contains 31.3 gigabytes (10.5 gigapixels) of information, ranking it among the largest digital images ever created. What you see online is a small window onto the overall image, just like the Gigabanner which measures 48 inches high by 23 feet long. Yes, that's feet. In truth, if this image could be displayed in its full glory, the dimensions would be 50 feet by 285 feet long, far bigger than any screen could accommodate.
    
What you see on-line is a much reduced version of the total image, as is the printed Gigabanner which is 48 inches high by 23 feet long. If this image could be displayed in its full glory, its dimensions would be 50 feet high by 285 feet long, far bigger than any screen could accommodate!
    
While only a fraction of the full image, this virtual version has some amazing advantages. Yes, that's The Point in the foreground, but try zooming in on any distant point, for example up the Monongahela to the horizon. We think that might be Laurel Ridge out there to the East, silhouetted by the rising sun.
    
As vast as its vistas and impressive its vital statistics are, how this image came to be is equally interesting.
    
The story starts with a standout structure.
    
Rising 841 above Grant Street, the one-acre rooftop of the U. S. Steel Tower is both the high center point in a broad circumference of southwestern Pennsylvania and the largest, highest space on top of any building on Earth!
    
Its flat rooftop is so large, that even though a few people have been up there for a variety of reasons since the building opened in August of 1970, no one has ever had this complete, 360-degree view that includes so much of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela River valleys in a single glance.  
    
Nor have they been able to focus in on sights as detailed, distinct and distant as the airport and the Cathedral of Learning.
    
The High Point Park Investigation
The Pittsburgh Gigapanorama is one outgrowth of an idea that began three years ago, during my tenure as Post-Gazette travel editor.
    
Looking at a satellite image of downtown Pittsburgh, I noticed that the U. S. Steel Tower closely mimics the Point in both outline and orientation. Realizing the roof also measured an acre, I began to wonder what use could be made of that flat, empty area.  
    
That question started a process that led me to The STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a center for experimental enterprises across academic disciplines at Carnegie Mellon University. I was invited to explore realistic options for transforming this singular platform into a high-visibility, publicly accessible, sustainable facility we now call High Point Park.
    
Initial analysis indicates such a facility could become an important civic asset, a unique, downtown first-day attraction that could earn a regional, national, even international reputation for the Pittsburgh area as a leader in green innovation and foster a reevaluation of the uses of high rooftops everywhere.
    
The project has already received letters of support from VisitPittsburgh.com and The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and more recently, financial support from the Heinz Endowments and The Sprout Fund.
    
More importantly, the Investigation has engaged myriad creative minds in the Carnegie Mellon Universe.  The past January, more than 350 CMU architecture and business students took part in competitions to imagine the creation of a publicly-accessible, sustainable facility on the U. S. Steel Tower's roof. On Earth Day, we will be previewing "The Roof of the World" an independently produced documentary video shot during those competitions.  

Creating the Pittsburgh Gigapanorama
In a very real sense, this vista captures the essence of the Investigation, the incomparable view available from the rooftop that towers over any other point of perspective.  
    
For the uninitiated, a Gigapan is a photographic system developed at CMU for NASA's Mars Rover program for the shooting, processing, and presentation of large composite digital images.     

A camera is attached to a robotic mount that rotates horizontally and vertically, automatically snapping a picture at preset stops to create a matrix of images, which are then "stitched" by a computer into a single picture.  As the inexpensive, easily available technology spreads, thousands of images are being archived on at www.gigapan.org. Numerous magnificent Gigapans of the Golden Triangle have already been produced from the usual vantage points, such as Mount Washington and the West End Overlook.
    
However, producing this 360-degree image involved special challenges presented by trying to capture such an encompassing sweep. While even greater Gigapixel photos have been created, all are single files. This is the only one that involved the melding and extensive photo-processing of four such large files.  
    
In addition to getting access to the building's roof, it meant having to take separate Gigapans facing in different directions, then figuring out how to adjust the resulting files for differing illumination and angles, and finally how to photographically join them together. While these might be relatively simple manipulations in Photoshop, these huge files overwhelmed even the most powerful computers and the standard software they run.  The vertical banding that is most evident in the sky is a consequence of having to cut the images into right byte-sized vertical strips so they could be processed.  
    
Shooting and producing this first Pittsburgh Gigapanorama required nearly six months of involvement, expertise, dedication, and innovation from many talented volunteers. We all learned so much in the process.
   
The closer you get, the more you can see
What can you find in the Gigapanorama?  In addition to familiar landmarks and personal places, close examination will reveal so many details it's easy to get lost in the landscape and sky. For example, can you find the plane approaching the airport?
    
If you do spot something special, it's easy and free to register on the site and take snapshots. You can even write a few lines about what it means to you. We'll be gathering suggestions into a YouTube video tour of the Gigapanorama that will be produced and posted in the coming months.   
    
Yet inevitably, such a vast and complex image also contains myriad anomalies, mostly from processing limitations and the stretching and parallax distortions that result from trying to puzzle so many crazy pieces together again.
And as dramatic as this image is, it is only a first effort, replete with all its flaws.  We have learned a lot and are already considering how both the process and the product can be improved for the second edition.
    
We believe urban portraits like this one have a bright future, and we hope to let everyone know when we go up to shoot the next Pittsburgh Gigapanorama.  That way, anyone who can see the U. S. Steel Tower from where they are can stand outside and wave, "Hello, World."     

For more about the Pittsburgh Gigapanorama and or purchasing a printed, more poster-sized version of the image, visit www.highpointpark.org

Publisher/host of The Traveler's Journal and former editor of the Post-Gazette, David Bear is a Fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at CMU - highpointpark@cmu.edu.

The four separate Gigapans were shot by Randy Sargent, Paul Heckbert, Dror Yaron, and Goutham Mani of CMU's Create Lab. The thousands of images comprising those four Gigapans were stitched together by Paul Heckbert, who has also helped coordinate the project. Ruth Karlin provided extensive post-production Photoshop artistry; Art Wetzel of Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and his 8-processor, 64-Gig RAM computer helped manage, adjust, and assemble the full image files. Gorsimran Koonjul of CMU offered computer assistance. Andy Wisniewski of C.B. Richard Ellis arranged access to the roof. 

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Photograph of David Bear copyright Brian Cohen







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