Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet
Take a Spin on the Internet
By Mike Gould
"To everything, turn, turn, turn..."
And the season is here to check out Virtual Reality (VR), Web-style. I recently got turned onto a new avenue for digital photography, the ability to show off environments-in-the-round. The experience is as if you were in a room and had the ability to spin around, examining your locale in a 360-degree circle.
To make heads turn in this manner, you need: a digital camera, a tripod, a special tripod head, a computer, special software, and patience. The process involves attaching your camera to a tripod head that enables you to take pictures at preset intervals as the camera rotates horizontally around the axis of the tripod. In other words, you set up your camera in a room, say, and take a picture. You then rotate the camera and take a picture 15 degrees to the left of the first picture. Then you rotate the camera another 15 degrees and shoot, continuing until you have captured the entire room as a series of 18 or so overlapping pictures.
Next, you download the pictures into your computer, and dump them into special software that "stitches" the pictures together, resulting in a panoramic (pano) cylinder with the viewer in the middle. To view the pano, the viewer needs a computer with appropriate software; the first image of the room appears, and by clicking and dragging to the left or right, the viewer can see what the entire room looks like.
Engines of Rotation
There are several formats and software plug-ins available for viewing VR movies on the Web; I recommend QuickTime (QT). This is a plug-in (a software add-on that gives your existing software increased capabilities) that enables your browser (Netscape or Internet Explorer) to view VR within the browsing window, as well as viewing other types of dynamic media - movie trailers, etc.. QuickTime contains within it the ability to display QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR), which is the format I recommend for displaying and viewing panos. The plug-in is available from: http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/, and works with Macs and all varieties of Windows.
To create these scenes, you need some special gear. I got mine from Kaidan, a company that makes the special tripod heads and sells the software. They can be found at: http://www.kaidan.com/. They sell software for Mac and Windows, ranging in price from $100 or so on up. You can also get software bundled with some scanners and digital cameras - if you don't already have a digital camera, look for this in prospective packages before buying.
Intending to get into this professionally, I went whole hog (a technical term) and bought the Apple QuickTimeVR Authoring studio, bundled with a good Kaidan head. This set me back around $650, not including the camera ($500) and Bogen tripod ($200).
I don't want to scare anyone away from this because of cost: you can spend a lot less and still get acceptable results. I have even seen panos shot without a tripod; you just hold the camera tightly, and spin around in 15 degree or so increments, taking shots at every increment. With decent software, you can get an acceptable image. The secret is to overlap each shot with the previous one by 50% or so; this gives the software enough mojo to do a proper stitch.
Needless to say, this is becoming very popular with real estate folks. You can shoot every room in a new home, and give prospective buyers a virtual tour. The buyer can be anywhere in the world (where there is Internet access), and have the ability to surf in and check out prospective new digs. Using the Apple software mentioned above, you can create linked panos, such that when taking a spin your cursor will change when moved over a door, for instance, indicating an active hot spot. Clicking on the door takes you into the next room, where you can do another spin-around. You can tour an entire house this way.
You can also use this technology to rotate an object as you photograph it from a stationary camera. You can see an example of this at the Kaidan site; a toy sitting on a rotating platform. This is called an object movie, and is useful if you want to show off all sides of an object. You can see a working example of this at: http://www.harmonyhollow.com/bells.html. There is a rotating Matthew C. Hoffmann bell here which enables you to admire its angularity from all sides. This shot is not a QuickTime movie; this is an animated .gif I converted from a series of photos to save download time at the expense of control over movement - it just spins. (I also made it 3 years ago before I found out about QTVR).
Speaking of download time, these files can be quite large. As with any other graphics file on the Web, the more detail and resolution, the longer the download. Typical filesizes are around a Megabyte, which can take quite awhile to download through a slow connection. You can always do the polite thing, and present your panos in 2 resolutions; grainy and small for those with modems, and righteous and large for those with faster connections (or more patience).
Here are some examples to get you started. As a bonus, I shot the office of J&J Publishing, where Business to Business is birthed every month: