The Infinite National Park

By Phil Plait | January 28, 2011 7:00 am

Have you ever seen those posters where the picture of something — say, a Shuttle Orbiter — is made up of littler pictures? The main picture is divided into a gazillion little squares, and each one of those squares is another picture. It’s pretty cool; from a distance the picture looks fine, then up close you can see all the little pictures making it up*.

Not sure what I mean? Then check out this awesome interactive National Park picture put up by National Geographic.

When you go to that site you see this:

The yellow square defines a "region of interest" which you can move around. When clicked, you get a zoom:

See? Again, the yellow square, and again when you click, another zoom:

Coooool. Technically, you can keep on doing that forever, but in this case it drops a few levels and then you get a description of one of the component pictures.

This is a pretty nifty way to get people to click around, look at amazing nature photographs, and then actually learn something, too. It really is a lot of fun to click away at the infinite picture, so go ahead and give it a try.

Tip o’ the infinite derby to Michael Allen.

* I’m guessing, but I think the way it’s done is the big picture is digitally divided into little squares. Each square then has its average color calculated, and matched to a smaller picture with that same average value. Replace each square of the big pic with the corresponding little pic, and voila!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. Larry

    Mesmerizing. Its kind of like diving down into a fractal.

    That said, the engineering geek in me must know how its done. I agree with your guess as to what NG must have done to produce such pictures. With the right software to analyze a photo and pick other photos to fill in the squares, it doesn’t sound too technically difficult, especially when you’re NG and you have literally thousands upon thousands of pictures to choose from. Even so, this represents a lot of work by some very talented people.


  2. Messier Tidy Upper

    Cool artwork. :-)

    [Pedant mode] ‘Fractal’ would be a better word for this than ‘Infinite’ wouldn’t it? (As Larry has pointed out already.)

    Or ‘iterative’ maybe? [/Pedant mode.]

    [Imagines an interactive version where clicking on a Yellowstone caldera mini-image at the smallest level causes that tiny image to explode and take out most of the rest of the Big picture! 😉 ]

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    Reminds me of this other artwork the BA posted back in July last year a bit too :

    No other comments for me except that the title :

    “It’s been too long since we walked on the Moon”

    is 100% spot on far as I’m concerned. Couldn’t agree more.

  4. bob

    It would be fun to knock up a hack of this:

    1) Display an image.
    2) Provide zoom.
    3) Hitting zoom takes you to a zoomed portion of the image built out of other images.
    4) Hitting zoom again leaves you with a clear shot of one image with bits of others around the sides to maintain the illusion.
    5) Clicking zoom again takes you back to 3).

    If you preassigned each photo a “what colour would this image be if it was one pixel in size” value there wouldn’t be too much load on the server dynamically building each image as it reached stage 3). Bit of caching and you could explore the image collection this way for ever more.

  5. Rob

    Then there’s the low-rent version of this, where they simply tint the component pictures the proper color to become the “pixels” of the big picture. I see this all the time in schools, often using student pictures tinted red, white, or blue to create the US flag.

  6. It’s like someone took Inception and turned it into a picture. Crap, now I’m in picture limbo.

    We need to go deeper

  7. N

    I think it’s the first time I see this kind of artwork properly done. Usually you get just a grid of pictures with a bigger greyscale/color image superimposed and blended. Searching the grid it is easy to find the same small image with different color tones. In this case, on the other hand, they cleverly used the real color of the images in order to create the bigger one. Copies of the same small images can still be found, but they have the same color/darkness.

  8. Beau

    I love things like this. There’s an app on the iPhone called “Cosmic” made by the American Museum of Natural History, that uses Saturn as the image but you can get information about all the individual pictures. It’s pretty cool

  9. jaranath

    As Rob mentions, the low-rent version is to just cheat and artificially color the images. I hate that approach…it ruins the main thing that makes these pictures so impressive.

  10. elgarak

    +10 for the idea and implementation.

    -10 for doing it in Flash.

    -5 for some annoying ads and popups that my Safari Adblocker could not filter (it’s one of those sites that are cool to visit, but are annoying as hell without Adblocker).

  11. Eric A

    BTW, it does go on forever. You get the description only if you double click.

  12. Larry

    I just thought of one detail that would make this perfect. After some number of iterations of zooming in, replace the landscape pictures with a single picture of turtles stacked one on top of another. Sort of like this image:

    Turtles all the way down!

  13. dude

    semi political for a second… I’m a lifelong Arizonan. The Grand Canyon means a lot to a lot of us, and pictures of the Grand Canyon like this always make me get a little tear. I just wish people would think of this when they thought of Arizona and not a beacon of paranoia and hate.

  14. Shoeshine Boy

    Another reason why I’ve continued to be a National Geographic Society member since 1978.

  15. Jim

    To me, it appears that it is not actually making the large image out of smaller ones, but instead loosely creating a pattern that more or less resembles the yellow square out of a set of available images.
    The upside to doing this is that it need only approximate the pattern found inside the small yellow square, and not have an actual need to create a large image out of thousands of smaller ones.

  16. Bob

    I believe the technical term for this image is “spiffy”.

  17. Worlebird

    Very nice – the one thing I don’t like about it is that the initial “zoomed out” picture is NOT actually assembled from the smaller pictures – it’s that actual real picture. Only when you zoom in a level does it become the collage of other pictures. On some of the images, this is subtle enough to fool you into thinking that the large picture was actually made of these smaller ones, but on others, the transition from normal picture to collage is obvious, thus disrupting the effect.

  18. Martha

    Okay this is totally off topic, but since some tech savvy people read this I am posting a link that can help the people in Egypt fight the tyrant, Mubarak by undermining his ability to control the internet:

    “”Here’s how it works. Tor is a network of tunnels through which information and internet sites can be requested and passed back anonymously, allowing users to access sites like Twitter, Facebook and Gmail even when they are blocked. Your support will allow the Egyptian people to connect to sites like Facebook, as the encrypted traffic will pass through your donated bandwidth, avoiding firewalls set up by the government. If you have the know-how and are willing to make the committment, follow the links to the right to The Tor Project’s download page, and then read their guide to running a bridge.”

  19. Joseph G

    Recursive picture is recursive picture is recursive picture is recursive picture is recursive picture is recursive picture is recursive

  20. George Martin

    My contention is that it doesn’t work. Look at a picture when it is sharp and note the crispness, the detail of distinct parts of the image. Then “zoom” in where it breaks down into individual pictures. You simply don’t get the same resolution, but rather a fuzzy representation of what you had before. Doesn’t help if you stand back. This failure would be clearer if you could zoom out, but you can’t do that.


  21. Adam

    @ Worlebird

    I discovered that myself. Still cool, but the skeptic in me had to do some investigating in photoshop and I came to the same conclusion.

  22. Joseph G

    My html always gets baleeted. Apparently I’m cut off for bad behavior 😀

    @ 18 Martha: Interesting. One question though: can’t the Egyptian government just block whatever protocol TOR uses?

  23. Steve

    @Martha: Egypt’s ISPs have gone offline. It’s not a firewall like China has which people can tunnel around.

    @Joseph: It’s not a matter of blocking protocols. All TOR traffic is encrypted (except once it leaves the exit node, but presumably that’s outside Egypt’s control anyway) so the ISPs can’t do some sort of protocol analysis to block matching traffic. What can be done (and what China does) is to block access to individual entry nodes.

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @13. dude :

    semi political for a second… I’m a lifelong Arizonan. The Grand Canyon means a lot to a lot of us, and pictures of the Grand Canyon like this always make me get a little tear. I just wish people would think of this when they thought of Arizona and not a beacon of paranoia and hate.

    If its any consolation, whenever I think of Arizona I think of home – my house is on an street named Arizona! 😉

    Otherwise, thinking of Arizona the state I do think first of the Grand Canyon and of the landscape and, ironically, the Colorado river. Plus the historical battleship (one of those sunk at Pearl Harbour, right?) and then the Western movie title ‘The Arizonian’ – as well as the opening to that Beatles ‘Get Back’ song. None of which hold especially negative associations. :-)

  25. Joseph G

    @13 Dude: People who think of Arizona as a “beacon of paranoia and hate” are goddamn idiots. There’s no need to let them ruin your day.
    I’ve never lived there, but I used to travel there to meet family friends, and the things I saw there are really what kindled my fascination with science (the High Desert museum*, the Grand Canyon, of course, and Meteor Crater, and especially the Kitt Peak observatory) :)

    *Husband of my mom’s close friend was a curator there, a herpetologist. He had a garage full of venomous snakes, how cool is that (to a 12 year old)? :)

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ 25. Joseph G : @13 Dude: People who think of Arizona as a “beacon of paranoia and hate” are goddamn idiots. There’s no need to let them ruin your day.

    Seconded. :-)

    Durnnit, that’s what I should have said! 😉

    The Great Barringer Meteor crater (how did I forget that in my last comment!) & Kitt Peak Observatory are two of the places in the States I’d most like to see if I get the chance to visit again too. :-)

    That some stupid people let political ideology prejudice them against places like Arizona, that they let their political views affect them like that is just .. sad. Those fools are being incredibly petty, spiteful and bigoted. Oddly the very sins they seem to accuse Arizonans and others who disagree with them of having. Such idiots are, in a word, hypocrites.

  27. Thomas Beck

    Great site. Except – how do you zoom back out of it?


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