The International Space Station took 15 nations about $US100 billion and nearly two decades to build. Basically, it’s humanity’s most expensive object.
It’s also now host to Iris, an ultra-high-definition video camera.
A company called UrtheCast sent up the 4K camera in 2013, and it will sell data-rich videos to governments and businesses starting late July for about $US20,000-$US30,000 each.
However, the rest of us will soon be able to take the ultimate selfie — from space — for free.
No, you won’t see your beautiful face from 250 miles up. Each pixel in UrtheCast’s highest-res imagery from Iris can resolve about 1 meter (a little more than three feet). So scribbling your marriage proposal on a lawn or a public park will require some pretty big letters.
“You’ll never see the guy in the backyard mowing the lawn, but you can see a golf cart,” Scott Larson, CEO of UrtheCast, told about a dozen reporters in Manhattan on Tuesday.
Larson told Business Insider that UrtheCast plans to post a streaming 1080p video feed sometime in late July.
“[Astronauts] all say going to space changes them,” Larson says, describing what some call the overview effect. “We want to take the astronauts’ view and stream it for the rest of us.”
We’ve had great views of Earth from space for a while, primarily via NASA satellites, but Iris’s public, persistent, ultra-high-resolution video is a first.
Video from space
On June 17, UrtheCast released its “first light” Iris clips of Earth — a glimpse at what this powerful camera is capable of.
Judging by the clips, the live web feed should be incredibly cool and potentially addictive after it goes live. (The current live feed on the site is not Iris’s view.)
Here’s downtown Boston. You can see cars driving down highways and side streets:
Below is the River Thames in London. The London Eye is at the top left.
Iris can see boats zoom over the water, and UrtheCast’s software can calculate their speed in real-time:
While the resolution is incredible, the camera does distort tall objects. They seem to move or morph over time because the space station is flying overhead at 17,500 mph.
The videos look amazingly stable, though. UrtheCast says gyroscopes on the camera help keep the image steady, as it points at and tracks a scene. The gyros also dampen vibration from any astronauts banging on the space station’s hull while exercising, for example.
But the killer feature of the Iris camera is the software, says George Tyc, co-founder and CTO of UrtheCast.
As Iris records video, software in space and on the ground matches what the camera sees to older satellite images in real-time. “You end up with something that looks completely stable,” Tyc says.
Additional to that, Tyc says the video software can “track every single thing that moves.”
“Cars are moving, things are happening, tall buildings are swaying. … You see dynamics, you see this additional information” you couldn’t have without video, he says.
Take a look at Barcelona, for example.
Want to know how full those oil tanks are, or how much activity there is in the port? Iris and its algorithms can help:
Each tracked “scene,” like the ones shown above, can last up to 75, possibly 90 seconds — which is the product governments and businesses can order from UrtheCast. The more recent the scene, the more valuable it is, and the more UrtheCast can charge for the data.
The free web stream won’t track scenes nor have ultra HD resolution. It will also lack special data layers, object tracking, and other valuable services. But it should still look amazing.
The company also has a medium-resolution camera, called Theia, which Russian cosmonauts installed along with Iris in late 2013 and early 2014. Unlike Iris, Theia takes lower resolution (5-meter pixel) images over much wider swaths of the Earth’s surface (about 31 miles wide vs. Iris’s 3.4-mile-wide view).
Low-res isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; Theia can monitor forests, farmland, bodies of water, and other large-scale stuff. UrtheCast’s competitors offer similar imagery, but the company hopes to undercut on price (because it’s basically able to use the space station for free).
Yes, it’s kind of creepy
At least one reporter during UrtheCast’s “first light” event in New York City found the concept of a persistent, high-definition camera constantly watching our driveways, cars, boats, and so on from space a little creepy.
But Larson says there are at least 50 cameras on satellites taking photos at much, much higher resolutions — spy satellites “we’ve never heard of,” according to Larson. Some of these can probably resolve a licence plate number, but none of them are open to the public.
“We can’t see faces … or suntanning on a beach” with Iris, Larson says.
When UrtheCast launches its live web video feed in late July, Larson told Business Insider, it hopes to release a suite of apps for phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Larson said about 300 developers are currently working to make cool apps.
“You could find out when the space station is going to be above you, for example, and have it text you the image when it happens,” Larson says.
So if you’re thinking about proposing to the love of your life — and your ambition is so high it soars into space — late July might be a good time to target.
Watch the full Iris videos released by UrtheCast below.
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