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A New Gadget To Record The Wines You Drink

Last year, we sat on the outside deck at Apricots, a restaurant in Farmington, Conn., enjoying the last of our dinner. It was a gorgeous summer evening with a river flowing below us, the sun just setting and our wine glasses shimmering in the candlelight. What made it even more special was the attention we’d received from the sommelier, who recommended a wine that perfectly balanced our meals. I will remember that night forever – but, unfortunately, not the wine.

We took the empty bottle home with us, but even after we soaked the bottle overnight, the label was still firmly attached. Even though I still have labels from my first trip to Europe at age 19, I had to put this label – with bottle – into the recycling bin.

So I decided to come up with a better way to keep track of wine labels – at the same time that I was developing Lot18’s new iPhone app. The plan was to have the app feature close-ups of labels rather than photographs of bottles but, believe it or not, label images can be very difficult to get (wineries don’t always have them handy, or in a consistent format).

I went home after work one night, bound and determined to find a way to get good clean photos or scans of wine labels – and a quick Google search revealed that many before me struggled with the same issue. A regular snapshot won’t always suffice, and the images just don’t come off the bottles all that easily – if at all.

Sure, you can fill empty bottles with boiling water, wait several minutes for the adhesive to soften, then work the label off with a razor. Or you use an aggressive adhesive on a clear plastic sheet to bond the label surface to the sheet, and when as the sheet is pulled the label shears such that most of the label adheres to the sheet. But really, no method is perfect.

Then the proverbial light bulb switched on over my head: What if I could scan a thin, vertical slice of the label in the center of the bottle, then slightly rotate the bottle and take another scan? And another? And another? Those slices could be stitched together to produce an image that would appear the same as if the label was removed from the bottle and scanned.

Turns out, it’s pretty easy. All you need is your Mac, a high-quality camera (such as the one on the iPhone4, with a tripod such as the Glif), a light source, a cardboard box and a turntable.

Online, I found a turntable from Mitre that is mostly used for jewelry displays. It makes a full revolution every 30 seconds, for an angular rate of 10 degrees per second. Another search turned up 15-inch fluorescent fixtures with bulbs that allow for good color balance. I mounted the lights inside a Staples printer paper box, lining the inside of the box with white paper, and set the turntable in the middle. I spent less than $100 on all the equipment.

Smile for the camera

I turned on the lights, placed a bottle in the center of the turntable, placed the iPhone in its holder, and started scanning using an app I created called WineLabler. Fire it up and tap "Calibrate" on your iPhone, and the app does a white balance, focuses the camera, detects the sides, bottom, and neck of the bottle – then tells you when to start the turntable. The app records a series of 500 or so snapshots.

After the bottle spins for one revolution, the app stops grabbing images – and you can then stop the turntable. When the app finishes stitching the images together, it produces a full image of from the 500 slices. The app then gives you a way to view the final label image and zoom in on detail, so you can determine if this is a scan you want to save or discard.

You can then upload these images to a computer by emailing the image to yourself, using iTunes to pull the image out of WineLabler's Document folder, or through your iCloud account. With the image on a Mac, you can use Preview to extract one or more sections of the scan and save them as image files in any format Preview supports.

WineLabler is not a finished app – it can only handle red wine now, and the image stitching algorithms need tuning. But, I’d be eager to hear your thoughts. Would you be willing to spend ~$100 on the equipment (and $0 for the app) to scan your bottles? Would you like to download the labels of wines you purchase on the Lot18 site?

Just leave a comment below.

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