Microsoft’s Seadragon Offers a Stunning Glimpse of the Future

It’s not exactly one of those “When hell freezes over” moments, but it’s close. On Friday afternoon, Microsoft released Seadragon Mobile, its first iPhone app.

Seadragon Mobile [eventually will permit iPhone users] “to access every photo they’ve ever taken, every document they’ve ever written, every one they’ve ever talked to, every email they’ve ever sent, without ever having to hit a loading screen, without ever having to hit a next button, or page through, or scroll though a massive list of items,” says Microsoft Developer Ben Vanik in a video on the Microsoft Live Web site. (To view the video, download the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in for IE.)

Seadragon Mobile is indeed full of stunning possibilities but it has a ways to go before it achieves them. The app is intended to change the way people use screens—from cellphones to wall murals—to enable people to smoothly browse images regardless of the amount of data or network bandwidth.

Today, we focus mainly of images because they’re really easy for people to understand, Vanik explains. They can see a large set of images and intuitively understand what to do with them. If you can think of a data type, this could be applied to it, especially when you get into scenarios where the data is stored in the cloud or when you’re on your cellular network and your want to access that large volume of data.

AppCraver put Seadragon Mobile to the test, and for the most part, Microsoft’s claims stood up. Launch the app and the first screen you come to is a list of content ranging from famous paintings to photos of deep space. Select an image from the list, say, the Orion nebula. You can use the familiar tap and pinch to change the image size and to rotate it.

The “browse Photosynth” function does not work, an issue Microsoft is aware of and plans to provide a fix “soon,” it says. Photosynth is an app that recreates 3D, 360 degree views from a collection of related images. Users have the option of creating their own “synths” and sharing them.

One problem, I couldn’t figure out: The navigation icons to return to the table of contents screen, scroll forward and fit the image to the iPhone screen fade out when you tap an image (not unexpected). However, it was often impossible to get the icons back no matter what I tried. I tried powering the iPhone off and back on to see if that would make the app behave but to no avail.

Seadragon Mobile is more a “tech preview” or proof of concept than a truly functional app — and Microsoft doesn’t dispute that. Nevertheless, as Varnik says, this could be “…very, very cool.”

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