Testing out the new panoramic iPhone photo apps

OK, Instagram is the hot photo sharing app for the iPhone, right? Sure! But there’s a new set of apps (with a couple more on the way) that do more than Instagram ever could: let you take 360-degree photos.

This weekend I visited Yosemite with my family. A bunch of my photos are up on my Flickr page, and you’ll see the standard fare like this shot of Yosemite Falls:

Yosemite Falls reflected

The thing is, last week Microsoft shipped a new panoramic photo app that I wanted to test out. It’s called Photosynth for iPhone, you can download it from iTunes here.

I wondered how it would compare to Occipital’s 360 Panorama app, which is my favorite for doing these quick 360-degree shots. You’ve seen me use these a few times, especially when I visit something like Facebook’s datacenter.

So, while standing in Yosemite valley, I thought I’d give these two a good test out. Here’s my two shots:

Yosemite Falls with Occipital’s 360 Panorama.

Yosemite Falls with Microsoft’s Photosynth.

Neither is perfect, so let’s cover the pros and cons:

Ways Occipital’s app wins:

* Easier to use. You just start up the app, click capture, and then pan the camera around. It took one shot to make this full 360-degree view. Just move smoothly in a circle and you’ll see it capture the image.
* Easier to view. Microsoft’s app requires Silverlight, so I’ve gotten some complaints that people couldn’t view images done with Microsoft’s Silverlight app, especially on iPads. Boo! Occipital’s images work just fine, though.
* Easier to share. Occipital’s app shares images on Facebook and Twitter, where Microsoft’s app just shares with Facebook. This really sucks when you want to share an image in near real time with Twitter folks (copying and pasting a URL in Microsoft’s app on the iPhone is very difficult, too, which makes this problem worse).

Ways Microsoft’s app wins?

* Better image quality overall.
* Users can zoom the image in!
* Photosynth makes a 3D map of the world around you. Eventually this map will make it possible to join different people’s Photosynths together.
* Some people will like the “shoot one tile at a time” approach because it makes seams less obvious and also encourages you to shoot more of the scene (my Occiptal image doesn’t show the entire sky and ground, while the Photosynth does).
* Photosynth has a community where you can search for other people’s Photosynths (and other people can find yours).

Anyway, both apps are really great, and if you don’t have one or both on your iPhone you’ll be missing out when you get someplace like Yosemite that just DEMANDS a 360-degree view!

My end review:

Microsoft Photosynth: 4 out of 5 stars (not including Twitter and relying too much on Silverlight are biggest sins, if you want to view on iPad you might give this a far lower rating, like Ben Kessler did).
Occipital’s 360 Panorama: 3.5 stars out of 5. (Seams too obvious and not easy to capture a complete top-to-bottom 360-degree view).


Photo tour of Facebook’s new datacenter

Facebook's datacenter in Prineville, Oregon, USA from the outside

Today I was very fortunate to have gotten a tour of Facebook’s new datacenter up in Prineville, Oregon (map). This datacenter is the most energy efficient in the world and only a handful of press got a look. We’ll have a video up after editing it, but here’s a look at the datacenter in photos. I shot all of these photos on an unmodified iPhone 4 with Instagram, that just got an update today. For the panoramic photos I was using Occipital’s 360 app.

Here’s the sight that we saw on arriving. Keep in mind this building is HUGE and there’s a sizable solar array out front (here’s a panoramic photo from inside that solar array), which doesn’t really power much of the datacenter, but powers some of the buildings around the site. Photos don’t really do it justice, but think about three average Walmarts put end-to-end :

Facebook's new datacenter. Huge!

Facebook is so big that it has its own flag:

Facebook has its own flag. Hangs in front of datacenter and the tour is over.

Walking in, yes, we are in the right place:

Sign in lobby of Facebook datacenter.

Just past the Facebook sign is a monitor in the lobby that shows you the state of the datacenter and how well the cooling systems are working:

Cooling chart at Facebook datacenter entrance.

Inside the security door the local community made these quilts, which is their interpretation of what a social network looks like:

Quilts done by local community in entranceway to Facebook datacenter.

Walking in Thomas Furlong, director of site operations at Facebook, brought us into a huge series of rooms which “process” the air. First room filters the air. Second room filters it further.

Here’s Thomas showing us one of the huge walls of filters (these filters are similar to the ones in my home heating system, except here Facebook has a wall of them).

Thomas Furlong, director of site operations at Facebook, shows us a huge wall of filters at its datacenter

Here’s a better shot of just how massive this filtering room is:

The air filter at Facebook datacenter. Big!

Then the air goes into a third room, one where the air is mixed to control humidity and temperature (if it’s cold outside, as it was today, they bring some heat up from inside the datacenter and mix it here) and on the other side, there’s a huge array of fans, each of which has a five horsepower motor (today the fans were moving at 1/3 speed, which makes them more efficient).

Here you can see the back sides of one of the huge banks of filters:

Air filters at Facebook's datacenter.

Here Thomas stands in front of the fans:

Facebook fans!

Here’s a closeup look at one of the fans that forces air through the datacenter and through the filtering/processing rooms:

Each fan has 5hp motor.

Finally, the air moves through one final step before going downstairs into the datacenter. In this final step small jets spray micro-packets of water into the air. As the water evaporates, which it does very rapidly, it cools the air. One room I didn’t take photos in was filled with pumps and reverse osmosis filters, which makes the water super pure so it works better when using it to cool in this way. One final set of filters makes sure no water gets into the datacenter. Here’s a closer look at the array of water jets:

Water cooling at Facebook data center.

Here you can see the scale of the room that sprays that water:

Filter room #2 at Facebook datacenter. Huge!

Here’s a closeup of one of the jets of cooling water:

Water-cooling jet at Facebook datacenter.

Finally we got to follow the air down into the datacenter where there was a huge floor with dozens of rows. Each row had rack after rack of servers.

Here Thomas stands in front of just one of those racks:

Tom Furlong gives us our first look at Open Compute servers at Facebook datacenter.

A look down the main corridor at Facebook's new datacenter

This 180-degree view gives you a look down the main corridor (on the side you can see is only half the datacenter — these are the newer “Open Compute” servers, the other half they asked us not to take pictures of, and that contained their older server technology).

If you click here you can see a panoramic photo of one of these rows.
Panoramic Photo of one of the rows of servers inside Facebook's new datacenter

What does this all mean? Well, for one, it brings jobs to Prineville, which is a small town with about 10,000 residents in a very rural county (we drove about half an hour through mostly farmland just to get to Prineville). But listen to Prineville’s mayor to hear what it means for her community.


Which brought up the question: why Prineville. The execs who showed me around today said they chose the site based on an exhaustive search for the perfect combination of low-seismic risks, cooler and mostly dry weather, access to power and Internet trunk lines (Prineville is an old railroad community, and fiber lines run under the railroads here) and a variety of other factors including low tax rates and friendly climate to business, etc.

Anyway, it’s not often that you get to see inside a modern datacenter. You’ll be reading more about this tour, since there were other journalists there as well, hope you enjoyed these early pictures.

By the way, why did Rackspace send me there? For those who don’t know, I’m a full-time employee of Rackspace which is the world’s biggest web hosting company.

Because we’re already building a datacenter based on the “Open Compute” plans that Facebook made and put into Open Source (the datacenter as well as the specs for the machines is all in open source now). More on Open Compute here. Plus we’re datacenter geeks so love seeing how other companies do it so we can learn from what they’ve done.

This social media stock market game is building a real-world “value score” about you

I’ve been playing Empire Avenue for a few weeks now and I’ve found it a really compelling game for a number of social reasons. First, what is it? It’s a stock market game where you can buy or sell your friends, or other people in the social media world. You can buy or sell me at http://www.empireavenue.com/scbl for instance.

Pricing is affected by the value you’re putting into social systems. The guy behind it, Duleepa “<a href="Dups” Wijayawardhana, is here and we spend an hour talking about the game and what it really is about.

Why is it compelling?

Well, because I’m a narcissistic egotistical butthead. Of course. 😉

But look further than that.

Three nights ago I went through the 550 YouTube accounts I was subscribed to. I ended up deleting more than 300 of those accounts. Why? Because they were providing no value. Most of those accounts I deleted hadn’t been updated in more than a year. Others only had really lame videos of their cat. Pretty low-value stuff to me. Maybe you’d like that, but I generally find TED Talks more interesting than cat videos.

By doing that my inbound video feed all of a sudden became dramatically better. Why? Because I was following people who were providing real value.

Can we share with each other the folks who are providing that real value? That’s the question that Empire Avenue is trying to solve and I’ve found it does it better than other social media systems, like Klout or Peer Index, that mostly measure how many followers and how many retweets you’re getting.

Everyone in San Francisco knows that Twitter and Facebook are building such scores about you, but they don’t share that with their users. Also, those systems aren’t going to study your reputation on their competitors or on places like YouTube and they can’t really roll in real-world reputation/authority/influence. Empire Ave can.

And that’s what makes it compelling and why I spent an hour with the CEO.