Introduction to VR
Somewhere between still photography and video lies what I believe to be an under-appreciated and under-utilized presentation format: 360° Virtual Reality (VR) Photography. (Yes, they still call it Virtual Reality, 1992’s “Lawnmower Man” notwithstanding.) It’s a really cool way to present a 3-dimensional area visually. While it isn’t exactly motion, like video—the vantage point of the viewer never actually changes, only the viewing angle—it can provide a much more realistic and detailed spacial experience than traditional photography.
It’s not a new concept. You’ve seen VR photography before in online real estate ads and classifieds. The real estate industry recognized early on that by plunging customers into an interactive, 360-degree picture of a living space, they could not only provide more detail, but also increase customer confidence. After all, wide angle lenses, creative lighting and other tricks can make any old dining room look like a banquet hall. Allowing folks to explore every angle of a space, zooming in and out at their own will, is a much more transparent way to show a place off.
I see a lot of potential for this type of delivery when it comes to schools. Which is why I’m offering it as a “Plus Service” through my new brand, International School Marketing (ISM). For now I’m calling it the service a “Virtual Campus Tour.”
VR photography is not the simplest process in the world, and it involves 3 steps:
Step 1: Shoot the Panorama
The first thing you have to do, of course, is shoot a panorama. Basically, stay in one place and shoot the full 360 degrees of space surrounding you. Shooting a panorama is a relatively straightforward process, but there are a few things to keep in mind:
- – Although it may seem counterintuitive, you want to shoot in portrait (vertical) orientation, unlike the guy in the photo to the right, which I just stole off the Internet. By shooting in portrait, you can cover more vertical space. The horizontal area will be covered by all the multiple shots you’re taking.
- – Also, unlike the guy in the picture, use a tripod. In order to create the true 360° effect, you need to approach every angle from the same vantage point. They make special tripods for panoramic shots which keep the glass of your lens in the same place as the camera rotates around it. But for most purposes, a regular old tripod should do fine.
- – Allow for overlap. It’s recommended that you cover about 40% of the previous angle in each shot. This will make it easier for you to stitch the photos together into a seamless panorama. If you don’t allow for enough overlap, or if you provide too much, you will confuse your software and your computer will melt.
- – Keep your settings on “manual”. Once you’ve determined the proper focal length, exposure and white balance, leave your camera and lens settings alone throughout the shoot. If your camera is set to automatic, the exposure, focus and color will change with each shot depending on the subject, and the resulting photos won’t stitch together properly.
This guy does a pretty good job of saying everything I just said, except while showing how it’s done:
Step 2: Stitch it Up
Now that you have a series of photos covering the entire area you want to present, you’ll need to “stitch” them together. Adobe Photoshop has had a function for this process, called “Photomerge”, for a long time. It does a pretty good job.
However, there are other programs out there that are dedicated solely to panoramic photography and they tend to give you a little more control. Right now, I’m using software called PTGui Pro, and I’m happy with it. I won’t go into the details of stitching photos together, because the software is very intuitive, and it handles the work of alining and blending your images for you. One quirky thing I did notice about PTGui Pro: when you save a project, it names files with the extension .pts. I can imagine this becoming a headache for anyone who uses Avid Pro Tools.
Step 2: From Still to Movement
The final step is to take your panorama and turn it into an interactive motion experience. There is one very important consideration before you get to this phase: the left and right sides of your panorama must meet seamlessly in order for it to work. If you did everything properly, the stitching software should have created this alignment already.
I have been using a program called Pano2VR for this process. It’s fairly straightforward. You load your panorama into the software, enter details about the area (description, date, latitude/longitude), adjust your settings (output size, controller interface, etc.) and create your VR experience in the format of your choice. This is an important feature to have. See, the old Quicktime Pro used to create 360° VR presentations, but dropped this feature in Quicktime 10. Pano2VR can export to Quicktime still, although the rendered VR is pretty slow. Pano2VR can also export to Flash, all within a self-contained file. Of course, this isn’t going to work on any iOS device, so I don’t recommend it. Fortunately, Pano2VR can also export to HTML5, without any significant loss in image quality or render time. Below are two examples, the first one is a basic Flash VR (if you’re on an iPad or iPhone right now, all you’re seeing is a blank space.) And the second image is HTML5, with more bells and whistles—descriptors, a controller interface, zoom capability and an auto-rotate function.
Riverside Park Along Nguyen Duc Canh, Saigon, Vietnam
I’m still working on my shooting technique for this specialized type of photography, as well as full spherical panoramas which will allow viewers to pan up, down, diagonally, etc. But as you can see from just the two images above, there is already a lot of potential here. Just like stop-motion photography, HDR photography, or any other specialized form, there is a certain place for VR photography; it’s not for everyone.
On the other hand, when a client needs to present a realistic, photographic space in which visitors can completely immerse themselves—something I believe the international school community could certainly benefit from—I can’t think of a more appropriate application than this.