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High-Tech Times Article 024

Photographic Virtual Reality (VR)

This column marks the start of my third year writing for “On-Line Connection.” And to kick off the year right, I’m going to share some techniques for adding some depth (and width and height) to your Web site.

A picture on your Web site may be worth a thousand words, but what if you could show people all over the world a 360-degree panorama of your office, your home, or even your new computer? Welcome to the world of Photographic Virtual Reality (VR). Don’t confuse photo-VR with Virtual Reality Modeling Language, or VRML; VRML scenes are created using 3D virtual models, while photo-VR is often called “immersive imaging” and “interactive photography.”

There are two ways to make a photo-VR image.  A panorama is created by shooting a series of overlapping photographs, rotating the camera between shots (more details on that in a moment), and then “stitching” the shots using software that seamlessly blends the images. Photo-VR objects are created by positioning an object on a turntable, taking multiple overlapping shots while rotating the object, and again processing the images with software.

Let’s start with what was, to me, the most difficult part of this process: rotating the camera. It may seem like the simplest thing to just plunk your camera down on a tripod, fire off a series of photos (film-based or digital), and then stitch them together. But that method results in a roller-coaster version of what you want to show, because the center of the image-plane is not precisely centered over the tripod.

This technique requires a special “head” on a tripod that correctly positions the camera. I chose the Manfrotto-Bogen QTVR Plus kit (, then click on QTVR) for around $250, as I work with both film and digital cameras. Kaidan also makes the KiWi line of camera heads ( for a few dollars less.

Once you have shot & processed your images, you still need to decide on a final format for your 3D creation. Apple’s QuickTime VR (QTVR) is the oldest and most widely-used immersive imaging technology, and QTVR playback is built into  both QuickTime 3 and 4, on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. Live Picture’s Zoom technology isn’t as widely used as QTVR, but has some unique capabilities. Last, Interactive Pictures’ IPIX is a great potential technology, but is very expensive. and has a limited choice of production tools. So, for practical purposes, your choice is between Apple’s QTVR and Live Picture’s Zoom, and I’ll discuss both.

As QTVR is an integral component of QuickTime, a QTVR panorama can contain all QuickTime-supported media types. In an art gallery panorama, for example, each piece of artwork can be zoomed in, clicked on, and an entirely separate new QTVR space opened for additional information and details. And as all Macintosh computers come with QuickTime installed, and many Windows software applications also come with it, most users will be able to playback QTVR panoramas and objects immediately. For those few who need to download QuickTime, it’s a freebie at (, although it is a rather lengthy two-part process.

There are more than three times as many QTVR creation and production tools than for the other two technologies combined, giving you a large number of choices and price ranges. Apple’s own QuickTime VR Authoring Studio ($395) is one of the best QTVR tools, but runs only on the Mac. VR Toolbox’s new VR Worx ( is an excellent QTVR tool that provides superior Web-optimizing features for photo-VR objects and panoramas on both Windows and Macs ($299). Windows users can look at Enroute Imaging’s QuickStitch 360 ($70)(, or PictureWorks Spin Panorama and Spin PhotoObject ($50 each) (

Live Picture’s Zoom technology is ahead of QTVR in a number of ways. Zoom uses the Flashpix image format to deliver extremely high-resolution images over modem connections. If you create a panorama using Flashpix, you can zoom in to examine the smallest details. The downside is that your Internet Service Provider will need to buy and install Live Picture Image Server software. You can use JPG files in Zoom, but you then lose the sharpness on details.

Zoom supports playback through either a browser plug-in or a Java applet. Both of these support panning, zooming, and hot-spots, and the plug-in supports Flashpix images and directional sound, and adds playback of panoramas containing other media, such as video and 3D objects. But while the Windows version of the plug-in can display panoramas within Web pages, the Mac version relies on a separate helper application. This frustrates Web developers who are trying to develop a consistent cross-platform experience.

Live Picture’s Reality Studio ($499) is a Windows-based package that allows you to enhance panoramas with sounds and other media types by simply dragging and dropping elements. Directional sounds are really impressive: audio streams appear as 3D speaker icons, and you can position them within a panorama by simply dragging them with your mouse. However, third-party support for Zoom panoramas is still quite sparse, and there are none of the life-simplifying third-party utilities that QTVR producers enjoy.

Once you have created and tweaked your panorama in any of these packages, a simple <EMBED> tag puts the final product on your Web page. So try out these products, and I’ll be looking for your Web sites.

See you next month.