After months of hype, the wait is finally over for people curious about Microsoft Photosynth, a service the company launches Thursday via the Web to let people turn series of photos into 3-D panoramic vistas. The effect is not unlike Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope (which seamlessly maps the night sky) or even the panoramic live-action street maps offered by Google or startup earthmine, inc. Photosynth's big draw (for everyone except Mac users, who can't run the software) is creating unique vistas or "synths" using your own photos.

If you include enough photos in your synth (Microsoft recommends at least 20 photos of at least two megapixels each of a given scene and as many as 300 to provide a seamless panorama), you get the impression of being in the middle of a 360-degree photograph. Photosynth lets you isolate and zoom in on different sections of an image (reminds me of the scene in Blade Runner where Harrison Ford's character uses voice commands to search a photograph for clues to the replicants' whereabouts). If you want to be able to zoom in on a building in Photosynth, you need to have taken close up pictures of that building (in addition to wide shots that take in the entire structure).

NASA has already put this technology to good use. In June the space agency used Photosynth to take images of the underside of the Space Shuttle Endeavor while it was docked at the International Space Station. In fact, the images taken from the ISS helped the astronauts examine a spot of damage in the protective tiles on the shuttle's underside. NASA also was to use Photosynth to create a 3-D rendering of the ISS's interior for training purposes, so astronauts can be somewhat familiar with their new home away from home even before they get there.

Users are able to place tags on their Photosynth panoramas in order to share information about people or objects in a given image. Down the road, the company wants people with Photosynth images of the same location to be able to share information and image tags (for example, you take an image that includes a statue but later can't remember its name). Another feature Microsoft would like to include is the ability to search synths.

Mac users need not apply: To use Photosynth, you've got to have a computer running Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista, plus a broadband Web connection. The free software that's downloaded onto your computer to make Photosynth work doesn't run on the Mac operating system. Microsoft says it's working on a Mac version but won't provide a timeline for when it will be available. You'll need to be running Internet Explorer versions 6 or 7, or Firefox versions 1.5 or 2.0. A Windows Live ID logon is also required to create a Photosynth account and view synths created by other people (a feature that's consistent with the demand for ever more social networking opportunities on the Web).

(Images courtesy of Microsoft)