Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) recently unveiled Photosynth, a new prototype photo-browsing system that it's developing with researchers at the University of Washington.

The tool, explained here, enables people to pool their photos with thousands -- and potentially millions -- of others to create a detailed 3-D model of a specific location. It's perhaps easiest to think of the system as a hybrid between a slide show and a gaming experience, in the sense that it gives users the sensation of smoothly gliding from photo to photo.

Beyond this 3-D capability, it's expected that users will also be able to click on -- and dive further -- into any image they choose to get more information about it.

In its present form, the tool could be used for a variety of things. For instance, it could help tourists navigate a foreign city to learn more about historical sites. Retailers might use a version of the tool to enhance customers' retailing experience by allowing them to navigate a store's aisles from the comfort of their home computer. Educators could use it to engage students in a manner that's much more interactive than today's traditional classroom setting, and computer-game programmers could tap into its unique attributes to add a new level of reality-based functionality to their games.

Of course, what's truly exciting is that the technology will only continue to improve as computer processing power, data storage, and bandwidth continue to increase in capacity. These advances will allow not only photos but also videos to be incorporated into the tool.

Add to this vision advances in software and haptic technology, and it's not difficult to see how in the near future, reality and virtual reality will converge in a fashion that will open up a lot more exciting -- and potentially profitable -- applications.

Of course, there is no reason to believe at this time that Microsoft will dominate this future. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), which already has Google Earth, and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) -- having acquired the photo-sharing company, Flickr, last year -- are undoubtedly working on comparable technologies.

But my sense is that the market for future applications will be so large that all three companies, plus a few new ones that don't even exist yet, will be able to peacefully co-exist.

If, however, Microsoft can bring to bear its considerable technological prowess and marketing savvy, it might ensure itself a larger piece of the pie than its competitors. And, if it does, the company's stock -- which has been decidedly one-dimensional for the past five years -- could take on a new dimension that is more pleasing to shareholders.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich tries not to wear rose-tinted 3-D glasses when looking at stocks. He owns stock in both Microsoft and Google. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.