Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: 360 Panorama app for iPhone/iPod

I can't count the number of times when I was someplace (or sometime), and I wanted to share with my family and friends a sense of being there.  A white sand beach, a breathtaking view on a mountaintop, nice seats at a basketball game, or even moving to a new home come to mind.  There's a great app for that - 360 Panorama by Occipital for iOS ( ).  Note: this app requires the latest hardware and at the time of this writing works only with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, or iPod Touch 4th generation.

Certainly, there are many apps and desktop software that create a panorama shot by providing you with stitching tools (automatic or otherwise).  What makes 360 Panorama different (although not unique) that it builds the panorama in real-time as you rotate your iPhone or iPod Touch.  Just as impressive is the interactive 360-degree view that you can share with your friends, with or without an iPhone.

Sample shot and details after the jump.

Capturing the panorama is a very intuitive process.  You launch the app, then you'll see your iPhone's current point of view represented within an empty 3D grid.

You click on a Start Capture button, then you rotate or tilt the iPhone in any direction.  As you move the iPhone, you see the panoroma being built in realtime on the previously empty 3D grid, which moves as your iPhone moves.  It feels much like painting the panorama with your iPhone.  Check out the video (from Occipital):

Unless your rotation is erratic, the image is pretty seamless, with some limitations:
First, the ambient light levels determine how quickly you can move the iPhone.  There is an indicator at the top (shown in yellow in the above image) that helps show you the maximum speed that you can move, and as you capture the panorama, an arrow appears to show you your speed relative to that maximum.  If you exceed the limit, you may see gaps in the capture.  In daylight, this is a non-issue.  In nighttime indoor lighting, this will slow you down, but it's by no means an agonizing process (it may take 30 seconds or more to do a full rotation).

Second, to match the starting point with the finishing point of your capture, you have to be fairly precise with your positioning of the iPhone.  When I tried the app for the first time, I held the iPhone at arms' length and I kept getting images that were only around 330 degrees, so they never quite connected end-to-end.  I was quite disappointed and was ready to pan the app.  No pun intended.

I later found out that I could get much better results when I rotated the camera much closer to its own axis, not around myself.  Doing it that way, the starting and ending points did line up, more or less.  I'm supposing the best results are with a tripod, but I don't have a tripod mount for the iPhone to test this.  Without a tripod, the next best thing I can suggest is to pick a starting point that has an object that is further away and with less defined features (e.g. trees or grass or blank wall) so that it's less obvious when it doesn't line up exactly.

Third, as the 3D grid above shows, it's possible to capture up to double the height of the iPhone camera view (i.e., a multi-row panorama) by rotating two or more times but the seam between the separate vertical captures is easily noticeable as you'll see later.

When you finish the capture, you'll get a cylindrical panorama that can either be viewed flat, in a 360-degree view (like QuickTime VR), or in stereographic projection.

Flat Image
When you save the image, it gets stored in the Camera Roll folder in the flat view by default.  The flat view looks pretty much like the panoramas we usually see from images stitched together.  The shot below is a 3-row panorama (as discussed, the seams between each row are quite visible):

360 View
The centerpiece of this app is the 360 view, which shows the panorama in an interactive 360-degree view (similar to Quicktime VR).

The latest version of 360 Panorama now works with the iPhone's gyro sensor and allows viewing the 360 degree image by moving the iPhone around you, further enhancing the illusion of being there.  The gyro effect can be turned off by tilting the phone downward and turned on again by tilting the phone up.

You can access the 360 view of previous panoramas you've taken by tapping the menu button beside the Start Capture button.  This will bring up your photo folders.  If you select a panoramic photo taken by 360 Panorama, the app will load it and allow you to see it in 360 view.  Note: if the panorama was edited in another app, it can no longer be loaded into 360 Panorama.

Stereographic projection
Right after you capture the image, you have the choice of switching from a 360 view to a Stereographic projection.

With a stereographic projection, the image is made to look like a circle.  Here's an example - not a very good one but hopefully gets the point across.
If an image is saved in this stereographic view, it cannot later be viewed in 360, and vice-versa.  However, after capturing the image, it is possible to save it separately in 360 view and in stereographic view.

There are two ways to share images from 360 Panorama: by email or by uploading.

You can email images either in flat format or in 360 view format.  In the latter case, the attachment can be opened only in 360 Panorama.  But there's a better way to share your panorama.

In this option, the 360 view can be uploaded to Occipital's website and to either TwitPic or yFrog, complete with geotag.
The cool thing about the upload is that even if your recipient doesn't have 360 Panorama, they can get an interactive 360 view on any browser just by clicking on the Occipital link.  And if they visit the link with an iPhone 4 or iPod Touch 4th generation, the 360 view will also be gyro-aware, just like viewing it on the app itself!  Sharing a 360 view of your location can be done in a matter of seconds with anyone, almost anywhere, as simply and easily as a tweet.  Brilliant!

Here's a sample from Occipital:
And here's a sample that I took:

360 Panorama is intuitive and the output is impressive even if imperfect.  This app was originally $2.99 when it debuted at the end of July 2010.  Currently just $1.99, it's an amazing app and a spectacular value. 4 out of 5 stars.  (I'd give it 5 stars if they update it to allow editing of the panorama and make the seams between rows much less noticeable.)

iTunes Link: