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Originally published Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft Photosynth makes star turn on "CSI: NY"

One of Microsoft's most impressive technologies in recent years starred in Wednesday night's episode of the popular crime drama, "CSI: NY...

Seattle Times technology reporter

One of Microsoft's most impressive technologies in recent years starred in Wednesday night's episode of the popular crime drama, "CSI: NY."

In the episode, the detectives investigate a slaying during a high-school prom.

They use Photosynth, software that stitches together images and creates a three-dimensional map, to re-create the scene of a slaying. In this case, the raw material is cellphone photos taken by students at the dance, which the software uses to build a "synth" of the high-school gym at the time of the crime.

The photographic reconstruction, which receives major airtime in the episode, leads the investigators to a suspect.

Detective Don Flack, played by Eddie Cahill, confronts the suspect with the evidence from Photosynth and then says, "It's Microsoft's world, kid. I'm just living in it."

Andy Ma, program manager in Microsoft's Lifestyle Marketing Group, said there was no financial exchange involved. But there was absolutely value for Microsoft. The "CSI" franchise had two of the top 10 broadcast shows for the week of April 21, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Frank Zazza is chief executive and founder of iTVX, which quantifies the value of product placements.

Incorporating a product and brand into a popular TV show like "CSI: NY" was "a unique opportunity because ... it's something that the show needs in order to make it work," he said.

What he calls "logo slapping" — just placing a Coca Cola or Pepsi in front of an actor and calling to product placement — doesn't work anymore.

Corporations are looking to do "deep dives" in to the show's content, getting story lines built around a brand and working products into the script in ways that make sense so it doesn't even look like product placement, Zazza said.

Viewers who can skip commercials with TiVo and quickly sort the spam in their e-mail in boxes have learned to reject obvious product placements. That makes the incorporated branded entertainment, such as what Microsoft did with "CSI," much more valuable, he said.

Microsoft's Ma has cultivated a relationship with "CSI: NY" producer Anthony Zuiker, who created the original "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." The producers of "CSI," and its spinoffs "CSI: Miami," and "CSI: NY," are always trying to outdo one another when it comes to featuring technology, and Microsoft has played a big part in that for several years, Ma said.

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While Microsoft benefits from brand and product exposure, "CSI" gets technical advice and access to early Microsoft technologies.

The show's producers and writers have visited Redmond and toured Microsoft's Home of the Future, Center for Information Work and Microsoft Research, gathering ideas.

The "Miami" show made use of the Microsoft Surface tabletop-computing technology in a redesign of the "CSI" headquarters for the fall 2007 season.

The Photosynth technology used in Wednesday's episode is real, working code. It was barely altered, save for a few Hollywood effects to depict the computer crunching the data.

Another concession to TV: The photos weren't taken with cellphone cameras, which don't have enough resolution, but by professional photographers on the set.

Photosynth has already been a star of Microsoft's show. It debuted to raves at the company's Financial Analyst Meeting in 2006. Microsoft has also partnered with NASA to create synths of the space shuttle Endeavour and international space station.

The technology makes use of "photo tourism" software developed by University of Washington and Microsoft researchers; imaging products and services from elsewhere in the company; and a novel display technology developed by Seadragon Software, the Ballard startup Microsoft acquired in late 2005.

The product was honed in Live Labs, a Microsoft unit tasked with quickly building new products and services from whole cloth or by combining existing technology from sources inside and outside the company. Photosynth has been its most prominent success.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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