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CMU program lets photo editors manipulate objects in 3-D

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Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Photo editing software is so common that smartphones, tablets and social media sites come with programs — with a major limitation.

No matter the desired result — a vintage filter on Instagram, a red hat in a black-and-white picture in Photoshop — users can work with objects in those photographs only in two dimensions.

A Carnegie Mellon University graduate student is trying to change that through software that lets users move objects in a photograph in three dimensions.

Natasha Kholgade, a robotics Ph.D. candidate at CMU, has done a lot of work in computer graphics. While looking at her origami swans, she thought something was missing.

“One thing I couldn't do was make my origami models come to life,” she said.

With Object Manipulator 3-D, she starts with the photo of the swans. She finds a 3-D rendering of a swan on the Internet. She introduces the information about that swan, including the parts she can't see in the photo, into her software.

And then, she said, she can move the swan around. She can twist and turn it, while everything else in the image stays still. She can even make it fly.

University officials said a Google Research Award funded the project.

Though amateur photographers and graphic design dabblers will have fun with OM 3-D, Kholgade said professionals could use the program to design interactive retail catalogs. Parents might be able to “play” with a toy online before buying it for their kids. Interior designers could take a picture of a room and re-configure the furniture with a few clicks of a mouse.

With all photo editing software comes the ability to doctor images. Kholgade and her mentor, Yaser Sheikh, a professor of robotics at CMU, recognize that is an issue with her program as well.

“What we're doing is just one more step,” Sheikh said about photo editing in three dimensions rather than two. “It's starting to take off in such a way that it is something that should be discussed seriously.”

Sheikh said other software programs can track what has been done to an image, and the pixels in an altered image carry information about what is original and what has been manipulated. Since the software isn't meant to make fake images, nothing they've done would fool a program that roots out fakes, he said.

“We're making it obvious that people should be more skeptical,” he said.

In a world where doctored images run through social media sites faster than they can be debunked, Will Yurman, a photojournalism and multimedia lecturer at Penn State University, said photo editing software has the opposite result. People believe what they see long before realizing it's not real.

“The easier this becomes, the harder it is to believe what we're seeing,” he said.

Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7991 or

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