'CSI' sleuths out Microsoft's latest technology

A guidance counselor at a Manhattan prep school is murdered while the prom is taking place in the gymnasium.

Forensic scientists for the New York police attempt to recreate the crime scene by uploading hundreds of camera phone thumbnail photos snapped at the dance onto a computer.

The PC screen fills up in a concentric square pattern, revealing a wide shot of the gym at the center. Investigators can manipulate the images to show close-ups of the scene from every angle.

This episode of the CBS crime drama CSI: NY, scheduled to run Wednesday night, is fiction. But the technology at its core, Microsoft's Photosynth software, is real. It analyzes scores of images for similarities and stitches them into a three-dimensional reconstruction.

CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker first saw Photosynth, which is due later this year, in July during a tour of Microsoft's research labs in Redmond, Wash.

Zuiker makes regular visits to Redmond as part of an ongoing creative relationship between CSI and Microsoft.

"The partnership for us is very important," Zuiker says. "For us to be able to launch things that haven't quite been in the marketplace or are new, in terms of visual story-telling with technology — to our fans, those bells and whistle are priceless."

Microsoft benefits too, of course, without having to spend money on a traditional 30-second TV commercial. There's dialogue right in the script. A detective tells a suspect, "It's a Microsoft world. I'm just living in it."

Viewers are treated to an early peek at the company's technology — in the case of Photosynth, months prior to its expected year-end consumer launch. (Microsoft is previewing Photosynth at www.labs.live.com/photosynth/.)

"This is truly an example where branded integration can be as powerful, and potentially more powerful, than a 30-second ad," says Alan Gould, co-CEO of IAG Research, which measures the effectiveness of TV advertising. He speculates Microsoft may be "trying to build a coolness factor around a brand — and that takes years."

New role: Tech 'adviser'

Product placement in TV and movies isn't new, of course, as anyone who recalls the 1990s Seinfeld episode featuring Junior Mints can attest. More recently, NBC's 30 Rock parodied product integration with Snapple. And how often have you seen a branded beer can or Apple computer in some scene? (Apple won't discuss its product placement strategy.)

Paid product placement spending grew 33.7% to $2.9 billion in 2007, and at a compound annual growth rate of 40.8% from 2002 to 2007, according to a recent study by the PQ Media research firm.

One driving force, says PQ CEO Patrick Quinn, is the proliferation of TiVo-like digital-video recorders, which let people skip past commercials.

No money is exchanged in the Microsoft-CSI relationship, which goes well beyond traditional product placement. "We are moving to a role of technology adviser to a show," says Jay Kenny, a group product manager for lifestyle marketing and placement at Microsoft. "It's a unique collaboration we hope to see more of in the future."

While viewers of fictional shows and movies are often willing to suspend their sense of disbelief for the sake of the story, using what's real or possible lends authenticity. Tom Farmer, film electronics coordinator for shows such as 30 Rock and HBO's The Wire, describes his job as a "digital snake oil salesman … to find stuff that is really cool and push it into places where it could be used."

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