Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised the first computerized method that can analyze a single photograph and determine where in the world the image likely was taken. It's a feat made possible by searching through millions of GPS-tagged images in the Flickr online photo collection.

The IM2GPS algorithm developed by computer science graduate student James Hays and Alexei A. Efros, assistant professor of computer science and robotics, doesn't attempt to scan a photo for location clues, such as types of clothing, the language on street signs, or specific types of vegetation, as a person might do. Rather, it analyzes the composition of the photo, notes how textures and colors are distributed and records the number and orientation of lines in the photo. It then searches Flickr for photos that are similar in appearance.

"We're not asking the computer to tell us what is depicted in the photo but to find other photos that look like it," Efros said. "It was surprising to us how effective this approach proved to be. Who would have guessed that similarity in overall image appearance would correlate to geographic proximity so well?"

Hays and Efros found they could accurately geolocate the images within 200 kilometers for 16 percent of more than 200 photos in their test set -- up to 30 times better than chance. And even if their algorithm failed to identify the specific location, they often found that it could narrow the possibilities, such as by identifying the locale as a beach or a desert.


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