At root, image analysis is the ability to convert a picture into hard data. Over the past few years, a family of versatile, easy- to-use software packages has emerged that promises to put that ability into the hands of more life sciences researchers than ever before.

"If a picture's worth a thousand words, a number's worth a thousand pictures," says Paul Goodwin, explaining the technology's value to scientists. Goodwin is manager of the image analysis laboratory of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. "Historically, biology's been very descriptive. The problem is, the more descriptive a subject is, the more subjective it is. Our goal [in image analysis] has been to find some way to objectify those descriptions."

Taken together, these new image-analysis systems take advantage of the fast-dropping prices and growing computational power of IBM-compatible personal computers (PCs). They also build on the strengths of the Windows operating...

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