No Flash in the Panorama: 360 One VR is a Virtual-Reality Gadget that's Here to Stay
Virtual reality or "VR" movies deliver a navigable, full-immersion environment over the Web, while 360-degree still images offer a unique and compelling point of view for any environment. Kaidan's new 360 One VR attachment is a unique lens that lets you shoot a full 360-degree panorama with a single shot from a standard digital camera. For realtors, architects, or photographers who need a fast, efficient way of producing high-quality panoramic movies or photography, the 360 One VR is a must-have product.
Most methods of shooting a panoramic scene can be time-consuming and difficult, and usually requires the use of special equipment to shoot multiple overlapping images that get stitched together by special software. The 360 One VR software/hardware package combines a special mirrored lens that can capture a full 360-degree image in a single shot, along with custom software that "de-warps" the image into a panoramic still, or a navigable QuickTime VR movie. The device looks a bit like an egg-cup-in-a-mayonnaise-jar (see figure 1) but don't let that deceive you; it really works.
Figure 1: This odd-looking contraption really works -- and works well.
The package sports a $1,000 price tag, but when you consider that the alternative is a wide-angle lens, a special panoramic tripod mount, and separate stitching software, the 360 One's price is reasonable. That's assuming, of course, that VR photography is something you do on a regular basis.
The 360 One VR is a large apparatus that attaches to the front of your digital camera (see figure 2). Kaidan currently sells mounting rings (priced separately) that let you attach it to a Nikon Coolpix 990, 995, 5000, and 4500, or Sony F707 (more cameras are added regularly, so check Kaidan's Web site for the complete list). However, there's nothing to stop you from assembling your own combination of step-up rings and adapters to attach the device to a different camera.
Figure 2: The 360 One attaches to the front of your camera and is pointed straight up. It is shown here attached to a Nikon Coolpix 990.
The scaffolding-like device extends about 10 inches up from your camera's lens, and supports the parabolic mirror. What the camera sees in this mirror is a full 360-degree view of its surroundings, and the resulting photograph is a bizarre, funhouse image. It's a confusing, distorted picture to look at, but Kaidan's software makes sense of it in your computer.
Shooting with the device is very simple. After attaching it and removing the large jar-like cover that serves as a lens cap, you simply set your camera's manual focus to a distance of about 8 inches and start shooting. Unlike multi-shot panoramic photography, each shot represents an entire panorama's worth of data.
In addition to convenience, the 360 One has several other advantages over multi-frame panorama shooting. First, metering is a breeze. Normally, when shooting multiple frames, metering can be very complex as the lighting often changes dramatically from frame to frame. With the 360 One, though, your camera gets all of the panoramic lighting information at once. Consequently, your camera's auto-metering system has no trouble getting a meter reading that works for the entire image.
Second, the 360 One lets you shoot panoramas of dynamic scenes. Because it normally takes a long time to shoot a full set of multiple panorama frames, you usually have to make sure there are no people in your scene. Because the 360 One requires but one shot, it's no trouble to include people or even objects such as water fountains, fireworks, or moving cars, in your scenes. Another benefit is that you can easily bracket your exposures, to capture the perfect shot, something you normally wouldn't consider for panoramas that represent a dozen photos or more.
In fact, the most difficult part of using the 360 One is simply keeping yourself out of the shot. The 360 One has two blind spots: a hole in the sky of about 80 degrees directly above; and another representing the camera, directly below. With such a huge area of coverage, about the only way to stay out of the shot completely is by holding the camera high over your head, while standing very straight, or to use the self-timer, or a remote, to fire the camera while you hide.
If there's any downside to the 360 One, it's the unit's size. With its protective cover, it's about the size and shape of a large mayonnaise jar. Fortunately, this is mostly empty space, so the 360 One, while not well suited to a backpack or camera bag, is not very heavy. On the other hand, compared to carrying a sturdy tripod and special pan head, the device seems downright portable if a bit unwieldy.
After you've shot your image, you need to use the included PhotoWarp software to de-warp the image into a 360-degree panorama. Kaidan's software couldn't be easier to use. Available for Mac and Windows, PhotoWarp provides a two-button interface that lets you generate still images or VR movies.
When you shoot with the 360 One, you get a single image that encompasses much more than what's reflected in the device's parabolic mirror (see figure 3). PhotoWarp includes a circular cropping tool that lets you easily remove the extraneous image information. Once you've cropped out the visible parts of the 360 One device, you simply click the De-Warp button to process your image.
Figure 3: When you shoot with the 360 One, you get a funhouse image reflected from the device's odd-shaped mirror.
You can select how you want your image processed by clicking the Format button in the PhotoWarp main window. You can choose to output either a QuickTime VR movie (regular or cubic) or a cylindrical or spherical still image (see figure 4).
Figure 4: PhotoWarp can unwarp the image into a spherical still that can be edited and corrected using a conventional image editor.
PhotoWarp includes no image adjustment tools of any kind, so if you need to control Levels or adjust color in your image (or perform any edits such as cloning or painting) then you'll need to output a still image for alteration in your favorite image editor. Unfortunately, PhotoWarp cannot turn an unwarped panoramic image into a VR movie, so you'll need a separate VR authoring tool, such as VR Toolbox's VRWorx, if you want to turn edited stills into VR movies (see figure 5).
Figure 5: PhotoWarp can automatically output a QuickTime VR movie, as well as a ready-made HTML file for posting your movie on the Web.
PhotoWarp can also automatically generate an HTML page that contains your VR movie and a thumbnail. For one-button VR Web page creation, nothing could be simpler. However, PhotoWarp includes no tools for customizing or editing your page.
The 360 One creates astoundingly good panoramas. From looking at the device, it's difficult to understand how it can capture so much of what appears to be above the parabolic mirror. Nevertheless, the device captures more than enough "sky" and "ground" to create a realistic, nearly spherical panorama.
As explained earlier, because the camera takes in a full 360-degree of scenery, metering is almost always balanced, even when the sun is visible in part of the image. Though the device's manual warns that the sun can cause bad flares, we found that our Coolpix 995 had little problem with lens flare, even when shooting in the late afternoon.
The Big Picture
Though the 360 One has some shortcomings -- most notably its prodigious size -- it's still an amazing device that is well worth the money for anyone who needs to shoot lots of VR. In addition to making child's play out of VR processing chores, you'll probably find that single-shot VR enables you to shoot different types of panoramas than you otherwise could.
In future upgrades, we'd like to see some basic image correction tools, as well as the ability to create VR movies from panoramic images. We'll also dare to hope for a collapsible version. In the meantime, though, the 360 One is a must-have for the busy VR shooter who needs to create Web-based movies.
Read more by Sean Wagstaff.
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