These Dazzling Google Time-Lapse Images Show Off Cities Like You've Never Seen Them Before

Humans are pretty amazing creatures: we build bridges, construct skyscrapers taller than some small mountains, and tear down faulty infrastructure and replace it with shiny new parts — and capture all of it through the lenses of our cameras and smartphones. Now, a group of researchers out of the University of Washington have figured out a way to use those pictures to show just how incredible those accomplishments and occurrences really are. By collaborating with Google, the team of computer scientists at the University of Washington were able to assemble time lapse photos of some of our planet's coolest man-made and natural phenomena and allow viewers the opportunity to watch years of work of mankind and Mother Nature in just seconds.

In the paper they released this week, the researchers explained the overarching purpose behind the project.

"We see the world at a fixed temporal scale, in which life advances one second at a time," they wrote. "Instead, suppose that you could observe an entire year in a few seconds — a 10 million times speed-up. At this scale, you could see cities expand, glaciers shrink, seasons change, and children grow continuously."

Using photos from millions of users around the world as well as Skynet — I mean Google — imagery, the team plugged the data into a newly built algorithm and produced some pretty mind-blowing results. Take for example, New York City's Goldman Sachs tower in its beginning construction phase in 2007:

... and compare that skyline to the one left in 2010:

It doesn't seem like a huge change at first — until you get to actually watch it being built:

It's like someone tossed a Mario Super-Mushroom on that baby and just let it grow.

The team also captured some seriously cool before and after images, like this one of the Las Vegas strip prior to all the construction and renovation of the mid-2000s:

And after work was relatively completed in 2010:

You can't even see the Monte Carlo anymore through all those new skyscrapers.

The team, made up of Professor Steven M. Seitz of the University of Washington's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Ph.D. candidate David Gallup, and grad student Ricardo Martin Brualla, pulled their data from a haul of around 86 million images from public domains like Flickr: the trouble, of course, was that they were all taken from slightly different angles and at different points in time — not chronologically tied up with a bow.

By using a "starting image" on which the resulting time lapse would be based, the team tagged all related images using an auto-program and got to work stabilizing perspectives, shifting angles around, and ordering the content by date. Finally, after hours of work, the team had produced nearly 11,000 time-lapse videos from across the globe. Remarking on their fine-tuned system, the team wrote:

This capability is transformative; whereas before it took months or years to create one such time-lapse, we can now almost instantly create thousands of time-lapses covering the most popular places on earth. The challenge now is to find the interesting ones, from all of the public photos in the world. We call this problem time-lapse mining.

But man-made structures aren't the only interesting captures the team was able to produce — a few times, they caught Mother Nature red-handed, taking back what was hers. In this photo set, researchers watched as a the Briksdalsbreen Glacier in Norway receded back into the rocky crest over a span of about 10 years:

"Time-lapse photography provides a fascinating glimpse into these timescales," wrote the team. "And while limited time-lapse capabilities are available on consumer cameras ... observing these ultra-slow effects requires a camera that is locked down and focused on a single target over a period of months or years [such as the Extreme Ice Survey project]."

Similar in nature to the time-lapse aggregate conducted by the University of Washington team, the Extreme Ice Survey project also captured retreating glaciers over long periods of time — just at a much slower pace. Using fixed cameras, the Extreme Ice Survey team of photographers and geologists produced shocking footage of the world's largest and oldest glaciers crumbling under the stresses of global warming, with their work culminating in an acclaimed short film, Chasing Ice.

"The scale and ubiquity of our mined time-lapses creates a new paradigm for visualizing global change," explained the University of Washington team. "As more photos become available online, mined time-lapses will visualize even longer time periods, showing more drastic changes [than the ones already assembled]."

Images: University of Washington/Creative Commons