jamesfmackenzie

All You Need to Know about 360 VR Photos

Photography, 360 Photo, VR Panorama, How To

Nov 2, 2016

Whether it’s a view from the highest holiday vista or showing off your new bathroom, no photo recreates the feeling of actually being there like a 360 VR panorama. Pan left, right, up, down, or even swivel right around to take in the whole view.

With loads of choices out there, what are your best options for shooting, storing and sharing your inspiring pano’s?

Shooting

The best camera is the one you already have - and for most of us that’s our smartphone. Modern smartphones are already equipped with all everything they need to take VR panoramas - namely accelerometer, gyroscope and CCD. The only remaining question is what software to use.

After some trial and error I settled on Google Street View. Intended as a data entry point for Google Maps, it also renders beautiful panoramas to your phone’s Camera Roll in JPEG format. The experience is super simple. Simply point your phone at a series of orange dots and Street View will snap the panorama for you:

VR shooting via Google Street View app (iOS and Android)

If you need better results, Street View is also compatible with the following 360 degree cameras.:

  • Ricoh Theta S
  • Samsung Gear 360
  • NCTech iris360
  • LG 360 CAM

If you want more control, you can shoot panoramas the old way:

  1. Use your camera or DSLR to shoot lots of overlapping photos. Make sure you always shoot from the same point. A tripod helps here.
  2. Stitch them in post-processing. Some good free options are Hugin and Microsoft ICE.

Storing

Stay away from the proprietary “walled garden” services out there. You want to store your panoramas in a plain, portable, future-proofed format.

My recommendation: stick with JPEG images in equirectangular (or sometimes, “spherical”) projection:

  • Google’s Street View already exports in this format
  • Supported by most photo-stitching software
  • Accepted as input by most panorama-sharing sites and apps too

Take these and store them with your preferred photo backup service.

A 360 VR photo in Equirectangular projection

If you spend lots of time in the Windows ecosystem, also consider the .pano file format. The Desktop, Tablet, Phone and OneDrive have built in support for it. Just double click to get panning:

The 360 VR experience - check out the ceiling!

Viewing

Aside from the Windows support mentioned above, there’s no native OS capability out there. You’ll need custom apps (or “Players”) to tilt and pan through your 360 VR photos.

In addition to the Google Street View app, the free VR Camera app for iOS is worth a look. Most of the other iOS options are either paid, walled gardens or total junk.

For other platforms, check out this comprehensive list.

Sharing

With no convergence around a popular, cross-platform Player, your best option is to share panoramas via the web.

With this in mind, Photosynth and Facebook are great options. Both feature slick viewers in the browser and allow easy sharing with your friends. To get started, see:

If you shoot (or convert to) .pano files, your best option is definitely OneDrive. Simply upload the .pano and the share the link:

OneDrive 360 VR viewer. Click and drag to pan around the scene

Happy shooting!

Convert Equirectangular Projection to .Pano File

Photography, 360 Photo, VR Panorama, How To

Oct 30, 2016

With native support in the form of .pano files, the VR Photography experience in Windows is great.

But how can you bring other VR images into the ecosystem? For example those shot and stored as equirectangular projections? Can you convert them to .pano?

The answer is yes! Here’s how.

Option 1. Use Photosynth

Definitely the quickest and easiest way. You need to:

  1. Publish your equirectangular projection to Photosynth. If you’re worried about privacy, you can mark it as Unlisted and delete afterwards.
  2. From your published Synth, select the Export option. After a minute-or-two (you may need to refresh the page), you’ll see see a Download option. Click to download your .pano!

Export from Photosynth

Option 2. Direct conversion

Don’t trust Photosynth with your data? Or just intellectually curious? If you’d prefer to build the .pano file yourself, you can. The process is much more convoluted than the above; here are some resources to get you started:

References

What are .pano files?

Photography, 360 Photo, VR Panorama

Oct 29, 2016

If you’re on the Windows platform, .pano files are probably the most convenient way to manage and share VR panoramas (aka “360 photos”).

The Experience

Built-in support for .pano files is available in Windows 8.1, Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile and OneDrive. In Windows, simply double click to open the photo viewer, then tilt, pan and zoom your way around the VR image:

Pan, zoom and tilt in Microsoft Photos

Upload .pano files to OneDrive for an in-browser panoramic experience, and for easy sharing with your friends:

The OneDrive pano experience

Creating .pano files

If you have one of the following devices, the Windows Camera app will shoot .pano files natively:

  • Surface Pro 4
  • Surface Book
  • Surface 3
  • Lumia 950, 950XL, 650 and 550

If you have a VR panorama in another format (such as equirectangular projection), you can convert it.

Details

C:\Temp\pano_example>copy building_site.pano building_site.zip
        1 file(s) copied.

C:\Temp\pano_example>7z x building_site.zip

7-Zip 9.20  Copyright (c) 1999-2010 Igor Pavlov  2010-11-18

Processing archive: building_site.zip

Extracting  ...

Everything is Ok

Files: 720
Size:       5387132
Compressed: 5507134
  • Looking inside, you’ll see the VR image stored as cube faces plus some metadata.
C:\Temp\pano_example>tree
Folder PATH listing for volume OS
Volume serial number is 000000FF D06A:CE0C
C:.
├───formats
│   └───cubemap
│       ├───back
│       │   ├───10
│       │   ├───11
│       │   ├───8
│       │   └───9
│       ├───bottom
│       │   ├───10
│       │   ├───11
│       │   ├───8
│       │   └───9
│       ├───front
│       │   ├───10
│       │   ├───11
│       │   ├───8
│       │   └───9
│       ├───left
│       │   ├───10
│       │   ├───11
│       │   ├───8
│       │   └───9
│       ├───right
│       │   ├───10
│       │   ├───11
│       │   ├───8
│       │   └───9
│       └───top
│           ├───10
│           ├───11
│           ├───8
│           └───9
├───properties
└───_rels
  • You’ll find a folder for each side of the cube: back, bottom, front, left, right, top
  • Within these, you’ll find several numbered folders: 8, 9, 10, 11. These indicate increasing levels of detail for the cube face:
8:    = max cube face size of (2^8)*(2^8)    = 256*256 pixels
9:                                           = 512*512 pixels
10:                                          = 1024*1024 pixels
11:                                          = 2048*2048 pixels

... etc
  • The actual contents of these folders depends on the tile size defined in cubemap.json:
C:\Temp\pano_example>type formats\cubemap\cubemap.json
{"cubemap_json_version":1.0,"field_of_view_bounds":[0.0,360.0,-89.9,89.9],"initial_look_direction":[1.5707963267948966,0.0],"face_size":2048,"tile_size":254,"front":{},"back":{},"left":{},"right":{},"top":{},"bottom":{}}

In my example above, the tile size is 254. So I’d expect, for the 8 folder, to see:

  • One tile of 254*254
  • Two edge strips of 2*254 and 254*2
  • One corner piece of 2*2

i.e. when these pieces are added together, they make up the full 256*256 cube face. Is this what I actually see? Well almost:

.pano tile dimensions - 256 pixels

So it looks like each tile is padded by a few pixels, probably to avoid ugly seams in the final result. Extending this to the 9 folder, I expect to see:

  • Four tiles of 256*256
  • Two horizontal strips 256 pixels wide
  • Two vertical strips 256 pixels high
  • One square corner piece

Is this what I see? Yep:

.pano tile dimensions - 512 pixels

This pattern of 256*256 tiling continues right the way up to the full face size defined in cubemap.json:

.pano tile dimensions - 1024 pixels

.pano tile dimensions - 2048 pixels

  • You can easily adjust the tiles and zip them back up into a working .pano. But be sure not accidentally add any compression:
C:\Temp\pano_example>copy c:\temp\example-tile.jpg formats\cubemap\back\8\0_0.jpg
Overwrite formats\cubemap\back\8\0_0.jpg? (Yes/No/All): y
        1 file(s) copied.

C:\Temp\pano_example>copy c:\temp\example-tile.jpg formats\cubemap\back\9\0_0.jpg
Overwrite formats\cubemap\back\9\0_0.jpg? (Yes/No/All): y
        1 file(s) copied.

C:\Temp\pano_example>copy c:\temp\example-tile.jpg formats\cubemap\back\10\0_0.jpg
Overwrite formats\cubemap\back\10\0_0.jpg? (Yes/No/All): y
        1 file(s) copied.

C:\Temp\pano_example>copy c:\temp\example-tile.jpg formats\cubemap\back\11\0_0.jpg
Overwrite formats\cubemap\back\11\0_0.jpg? (Yes/No/All): y
        1 file(s) copied.

C:\Temp\pano_example>7z a new_pano.zip -r * -mx0

7-Zip 9.20  Copyright (c) 1999-2010 Igor Pavlov  2010-11-18
Scanning

Creating archive new_pano.zip

Compressing  ...

Everything is Ok

C:\Temp\pano_example>copy new_pano.zip new_pano.pano
        1 file(s) copied.

Altered .pano file

That’s it!

References

Windows 8.1 Panorama Files.