Spherical Panoramas from a Phone

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It's crazy to think how panoramic photography has advanced in this century — from pasting together photos in a scrapbook, to fiddling with open-source panorama-stitching software, to getting simpler software from camera vendors, to having cameras assemble a panorama automatically from a series of shots, to having the camera take those photos for you when you sweep it in one direction.

Now, a new option in Google's Android 4.2 software adds an extra dimension to this art form with "photo spheres" — interactive panoramas that you can pan around, and not just from side to side but up and down.

And creating them involves little more work than taking a standard panorama. Select photo sphere from the camera app's mode menu, and the software will prompt you to hold the phone straight and level by lining up a circle indicating your aim around a blue dot that represents the vanishing point.

With that first image recorded, the app will display four blue dots around it. Slightly turn the phone to center that circle over one of them, and the software captures the next photo.

Move the phone again, and you'll see another blue dot to aim for; keep doing this until you've got the scene captured, at which point tapping a button at the bottom of the screen stores and fuses the photos.

It took 41 photos to generate a photo sphere of Lafayette Square in Washington using a Galaxy Nexus phone. The only hard part was the degree of contortion required to take photos of the scenery directly behind me without moving my feet (changing places breaks this process).

The results look great, with only a few awkward seams where one constituent image didn't line up with another. That could have been the product of operator error; a blurry image of my fingertip definitely was.

But the non-interactive image above, a screengrab of that sphere as posted to my Google+ profile, should suggest how few ways you have to share spheres. You can let friends play with them in your phone's Gallery app, you can upload them to Google+ (try searching for "#photosphere"), and you can submit them to Google Maps, where they will augment the Street View panoramas that gave Android developers the idea for this. That last option requires Google to approve your sphere; to judge from the total of five shared from Washington, fewer people may be trying it.

That's it — everywhere else, even your own computer, a photo sphere appears as a static photograph. Apple's abandoned QuickTime VR format may have required specialized composition software when it debuted in the mid 1990s, but you could post these spherical panoramas anywhere online, with Apple's QuickTime software needed to interact with them.

A spherical-panorama tool for iOS that I haven't tried yet, Pixeet, allows a slightly wider range of outlets, including Facebook and Twitter and free hosting at that French company's own site.

(Update, 11/25/2012: I should have noted Microsoft's Photosynth–not least since I wrote about it when it launched in a different form back in 2008–as another way to generate spherical panoramas. But that software's hopefully-soon-fixed requirement that viewers install Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in imposes its own compatibility issues.)

So while photo spheres rank as a neat addition to the panorama mode Google added to Android with last year's Ice Cream Sandwich release, the fact that you can't post a sphere on your own blog may hold it back.

So will the restriction of this to Android 4.2–like all new Android releases, it will only reach most Android phones with extra support from the manufacturers and carriers involved. And most of this year's phones have yet to get an update to the 4.1 version that Google shipped back in June.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery