About 15 years ago, I was feeling kind of nostalgic for a city where I lived for two years, Seattle. The Internet was just starting to be a big thing, so finding photos was as easy as searching online. This was the early 90’s and right about that time a small company called Apple introduced at their annual Developer Conference software tools that would change the way we view photos online.
It certainly changed my experience where by searching for photos of Seattle, I stumbled upon something very interesting. A website of an photography enthusiast who decided to make it his hobby and later his career using this new technology for transforming ordinary photos into an online immersive experience. That experience was called QTVR.
What is QTVR?
The technology in question stands for QuickTime Virtual Reality. It was used to create VR panoramas or panoramic images which surround the viewer with an environment with a sense of place. QuickTime was and still is a file format for audio and video made by Apple and QTVR was just and extension of the format, a plugin for the standalone QuickTime Player or a QuickTime Web browser plugin.
That experience was on the user’s side, but developers got the software tools for creating these VR panoramas with images taken at multiple viewing angles. Of course, technology in general was a big thing back then and naturally people went crazy for it.
It gained national attention when NBC News adapted it to create panoramas of crime scenes during the murder trial of O. J. Simpson. Simon & Schuster’s CD-ROM, titled Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual, was the first retail product to use QuickTime VR. Released in November, the Star Trek CD-ROM quickly sold more than 200,000 copies.
VR photographers used special panoramic cameras, special lenses, constructed camera, mounts, tripods, rotators, worried about exposure settings and all other technical details to make the stitching of the photos seamless. To make things more difficult, it was mostly still done on cameras with film, so it needed to be developed and scanned and only then would you know if the photographs were good enough to be stitched together. Now, of course, it’s much easier with digital cameras.
The original software tool from Apple was clunky and came with a pile of documentation. It had no interface, it was command line only. It took some time for these enthusiasts to build a workflow and start shooting faster and more efficiently. Again, now there are many tools available, both hardware and software and QTVR is just one format, with some of the others being Flash or Java based.
What is virtual about QTVR?
Speaking of the term VR (virtual reality), it is not really used in the proper sense in this case because these were mostly real places represented in such a way that it seems that you were immersed in that space. Also, QTVR was the first interactive panorama format, meaning that it wasn’t static. Links could be embedded inside the first VR panorama, like hot spots, which could be represented by a door or any other object in the picture, When clicked, they would lead to another VR panorama, or open a window to a web page. The VR panoramas could be zoomed in or out, rotated, etc. The level of detail depended on how many photographs were stitched together. It could have consisted of only a few or well into double digits.
A single panorama, or node is captured from a single point in space. Several nodes and object movies can be linked together to allow a viewer to move from one location to another. Such multi-node QuickTime VR movies are called scenes. Hot spots can be embedded into the panorama, which when selected can invoke some action, for example moving to another panorama node.
Let’s step back now and talk about what panoramas actually are and a little about their history starting with panoramic photography.
Also known as wide format photography, panoramas are as old as photography itself. People have tried to take a series of photographs by rotating the camera, leaving some overlap, and later finding the right spot to cut the photo and glue or stitch them together.
I remember my father doing that, rather unsuccessfully, with a simple camera with film. He would develop the photographs, and then go on to combine them using scissors and tape.
So, VR panoramas are just panoramic images which surround the viewer with a virtual environment creating a feeling of standing inside the place and looking out. The panoramas can be stitched together from several normal photos or fisheye images taken with a circular fisheye lens, or captured with specialized panoramic cameras, or rendered from 3D-modeled scenes.
VR panoramas can be either spherical (or cubic) or cylindrical. Spherical panoramas cover a full sphere-like environment which reaches a 180 degree vertical and 360 degree horizontal field of view. Cylindrical panoramas do not include the top and bottom, so its vertical field of view is less than 180 degree.
I remember at the time there were a lot of virtual guides to cities, museums and commercial places such as car dealerships. Virtual tours were also commonly used by universities and the real estate industry where they allowed users to click in maps or interactive floor plans and open a panorama of that space. Zooming in and out, clicking on hot spots in that space which leads to the next panorama is a true “virtual tour”. Virtual tours can include other multimedia elements such as sound or text.
A great service that can be considered a “virtual tour” is used to virtually “drive on city roads” and that service is integrated within Google Maps called Street View.
The original website is now closed but the enthusiast, I would describe him as an artist, Bradford Bohonus now has a new web site that features his life’s work up until now photographing Seattle, the city he lives in. I consider him an artist because the technology is not so widespread and is still considered a niche, so the work that he does is really unique, and he pushes the technology to the limits by creating experimental QTVR’s.
Later research led me to a web site that featured a Magazine done with the same type of technology. The VR Mag. The Cover page was done as a QTVR movie with active links to articles. Articles open in a new window that is only a web page, but within the articles were other QTVR panoramas.
Another enthusiast Hans Nyberg is a commercial photographer in Denmark and his web site is a collection of QTVRs from around the world. He has this to say about the technology:
Interactive panoramas is a young media and as such it has for many years been known among enthusiastic photographers and multimedia creators. An interactive VR panorama can not be seen in a book or on a printed image. If you print the panorama it gets a completely different expression. You can only experience the feeling of being at the place and look around, on a computer. You can only distribute VR Panoramas by the Internet or on CD. No other media can give you the feeling of being at the place like VR photos. And the ultimate feeling comes when you view it in Fullscreen.
Full Screen QTVR
This site presents projects with QTVR fullscreen from various publishers.
Discover places you may never have seen by traveling through space and time, enhancing your cultural knowledge without moving from your desktop.
Easy Way to Make Panoramas
Now panoramas can even be done on an iPhone. I use the popular 360 app, but Microsoft has made an interesting app called Photosynth. What is interesting about both of these apps is that they use the integrated gyro chip inside the iPhone to know when and how you are turning or holding the iPhone in space to help with the stitching of the photos taken. They also lock in the exposure for a more seamless stitching.
What has always stuck with me as the ultimate experience is that moment captured in time at a certain place. It is much more immersive than regular photographs or panoramas. And, you can interact with them!
It’s a shame that the technology didn’t gain momentum. There is still hope, because more and more photo cameras now are able to auto-stitch panoramas and produce a QTVR file, or provide a simple software solution for stitching them after, so there is still hope that this interesting technology will catch on. Perhaps even with 3D making its reappearance, these two technologies could join.
By Damir Razumovic
QuickTime VR – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, viewed 5 October 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QuickTime_VR
Re: History of Quicktime VR, viewed 5 October 2011, http://lists.apple.com/archives/quicktime-vr/2005/Nov/msg00036.html
Re: History of Quicktime VR, viewed 5 October 2011, http://lists.apple.com/archives/quicktime-vr/2005/Nov/msg00037.html
QuickTime VR Authoring Software for Creating VR Panoramas and Objects, viewed 5 October 2011, http://www.easypano.com/qtvr-authoring-software.html?gclid=CKbixIPPzqsCFQtU4godfHsHVQ
Panoramic photography – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, viewed 5 October 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panoramic_photography
VR photography – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, viewed 5 October 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VR_photography
Virtual tour – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, viewed 5 October 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_tour
Bohonus VR Photography, Virtual Tours, 360 Panoramas, viewed 5 October 2011, http://www.bohonus.com/
VRMag, viewed 5 October 2011, http://www.vrmag.org/
Panoramas.dk, viewed 5 October 2011, http://www.panoramas.dk/
Welcome to Fullscreen QTVR (Quicktime Virtual Reality), viewed 5 October 2011, http://www.fullscreenqtvr.com/
360 Panorama for iPhone, viewed 5 October 2011, http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/360-panorama/id377342622?mt=8
Photosynth for iPhone, viewed 5 October 2011, http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/photosynth/id430065256?mt=8