Ideal cities, ghostly cities

A team of computer scientists at the University of Washington is creating 3-D virtual models of cities (Rome, Venice, and Dubrovnik, for starters) using nothing but downloaded images from Flickr. As they explain:

In this project, we consider the problem of reconstructing entire cities from images harvested from the web. Our aim is to build a parallel distributed system that downloads all the images associated with a city, say Rome, from After downloading, it matches these images to find common points and uses this information to compute the three dimensional structure of the city and the pose of the cameras that captured these images. All this to be done in a day.

I'm fascinated by the play between particular and abstract here: the hundreds and hundreds of tourist snaps people take in the Piazza San Marco, and the process that identifies what all those pictures have in common, sifting out the changing quotidian details of weather and pigeons and passers-by. The results are beautifully ghostly, and remind me a little of those ideal cities* that Renaissance painters sometimes invented.

When I read about this project, I immediately saw possibilities for a short story, half speculative fiction, half ghost story, maybe with a bit of New Weird in the mix: someone is working on a project of this sort only on a larger scale, and starts finding odd little blips, or inexplicable clouds of points, or something just very slightly off, in certain unobtrusive corners in the model: a dead end of a narrow street, or one side of the interior of a church, or a shadow that shouldn't be there next to a fountain. And they realize that they're seeing something that's barely visible in individual photographs, but when all the images are fed into the reconstruction, it turns out they've called up…something. Which then, perhaps, begins to appear in the real world. I don't know how it ends, but I want to write it.

* That second painting is my favorite thing in the Walters Art Museum. A poster of it has accompanied me from apartment to apartment for years.

7 Responses to “Ideal cities, ghostly cities”

  1. Jill Smith says:

    Oh, MAN but that’s a good idea.

  2. Amanda French says:

    You tease! I would absolutely read that.

  3. paige says:

    Me, three! On reading the story, I mean.

  4. Lady P says:

    I seriously want to read this 🙂

  5. Amanda says:

    Thanks, all! You guys have convinced me — I’ll write it. Though I make no guarantees about how long it’ll be in the making!

  6. Rana says:

    I really like those story possibilities.
    Now I am sad that you haven’t written it yet!

  7. You should totally write that, and it should be a novel, because I wouldn’t want it to end too soon!