2D digital photos are so 1990s. Why settle for a flat viewing experience when you can create a "synth"?

Launched last summer, Microsoft's Photosynth website takes regular digital photos and turns them into a stitched-together viewing experience called a synth. Think a digital camera's panorama setting, only one that can automatically meld hundreds or even thousands of photos into environments that can be panned, scrolled, or viewed as slideshows.

According to Microsoft, synthing works by examining images for similarities to each other and using that information to estimate the shape of the subject and the vantage point each photo was taken from. "With this information, we recreate the space and use it as a canvas to display and navigate through the photos."

Viewing the synths people have already uploaded requires downloading and installing a couple of different plug-ins. The apps let users view or create synths, but work only on PCs equipped with XP or Vista. In addition, after being uploaded, synths become public and can only be viewed at the Photosynth website.

Microsoft describes synths as 3D, but we're not talking objects flying out of the screen here, or necessarily even fully rounded 3D objects like the ones that can be panned on some of the more progressive shopping sites. No, the best synths approach the quality of a virtual walk-through on a real estate site. Of course, these walk-throughs -- whether of a Grand Canyon vacation or the Obama inauguration -- are on a very grand and very personal scale.

Synths are definitely not "cinematic quality," and arguably aren't 3D. What they are is a revolutionary way to enjoy the thousands of photos that have until now sat on hard drives waiting for their owners to sift through.