Relightable Dome creates interactive images where you control the light source

Stitching together a bunch of images to create a single picture is hardly a new concept. Panoramas are old hat, and Google is even using 360-degree photos to help guide your shopping decisions. But a team of students at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, with the help of a few others, are taking a slightly different approach. The Relightable Dome, or Relightable Photobooth, uses Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology which captures an object or person under a variety of lighting conditions then combine it into a single, interactive photo. Inside the box is a concave surface studded with 81 LED flashes. A custom microcontroller inside triggers each flash in sequence and a camera mounted at the rear captures an image at each stop. And, while the enclosure is custom, the camera doesn't need to be. At the back is simply a bracket that practically any shooter can be mounted on, though in this case it was a Canon DSLR. The pictures are then stitched together on a laptop using a piece of open source software and a special algorithm to create an interactive image where you control the light source. The whole process, from triggering the first flash to final file takes less than five minutes.

The effect is quite different than a 3D model where you manipulate the object. In fact, we can only describe it as dramatic. Museums were among the first to make use of the tech for capturing detailed imagery of stone inscriptions, textiles and manuscripts. Shifting the light source exposes subtle nuances in the texture and illuminates even the deepest crevices, without creating a sterile flat image. While the uses for retailers and museums are obvious, something even more stunning happens when you stick your face inside. By simply shifting the angle of the light source you can bring emotion to an otherwise expressionless face. A flash from a high corner may cast menacing shadows and create the illusion of a frown or scowl, while one closer to face and slightly beneath the mouth may make it appear as if you're smiling.

The project was partially inspired by Yang Jiang's background in photography, and her obsession with lighting and the way shadows can play with the perception of the human face. Along with Peiqi Su, Liu Jing and Liao Wei, she worked to create this project for ITP's Winter show, where it drew a lot of attention -- almost every time we walked by someone was crouched with their head inside. The next step is potential commercialization. Right now, the only way to view the files is either with a desktop RTI viewer, or through the web view on the Relightable website. Eventually the group plans to build an embedable widget for viewing the images, but for now you'll have to go to their site and upload images of your favorite Engadget editors directly.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this report.