Homemade Mac: Not Just Any Vacation Photo, Part Three

The first time I heard the phrase "virtual reality," I was sitting on an uncomfortable black leather bench, illuminated by the sickly glow of blue neon lights while a 14-year-old kid unceremoniously snapped a heavy set of goggles onto my head. Around me were five strangers and my date for the evening, all similarly outfitted. As a computer fed images to our goggles, we swooped past glass skyscrapers, circled dizzyingly around a few planets, then dove back to Earth for a plunge into the ocean to chase around some cheesy, computer-generated dolphins -- all to the smooth musical stylings of Yanni. When it was over, my excited date asked the ticket-taker if the company offered frequent-visitor discounts. I asked if they sold Dramamine. Sadly, the romance didn't last.

So you'll understand my relief that Apple 's version of virtual reality involves neither goggles nor the pan flute. Instead, QuickTime VR lets people view a photorealistic landscape as if they were standing in the center of it. Using a Web browser, visitors can pan a photo 360 degrees, taking in the full beauty of a mountaintop vista or a tropical paradise.

QuickTime VR movies let you interactively view 360 degrees of an image. To see this QuickTime VR shot of Jamaica, click and drag your cursor to the left and right edges of the image.

In this column, the third and final installment of my "Not Just Any Vacation Photo" series, I'll show you how to create your own QuickTime VR movies. Before you get started, you'll need to have taken a series of panoramic snapshots (for tips, see Part One ). If you want to print and display your panoramic image -- or to make sure your final movie looks its best -- you should first stitch your images manually using an image editor (for instructions, see Part Two ). With these steps under your belt, you are finally ready to turn your boring old vacation photos into interactive QuickTime VR landscapes.

How it Works

I turned my panorama of a mountaintop into this QuickTime VR movie. Click and drag with your mouse to pan within the shot.

Using your mouse, you can pan all the way around as if you were turning in a small circle. But because you're in a cylindrical can and not a sphere, you can't look straight up or down (this limitation will change with Apple's final release of QuickTime 5 ).

To view QuickTime VR with a Web browser, you must have Apple's free plug-in, QuickTime Player, or use any application capable of playing QuickTime movies.

Choosing Your Program

Making a QuickTime VR movie is relatively simple once you have the right tools. Several programs available for the Mac will both stitch multiple images into a panorama and convert that panorama into a QuickTime VR movie. These range from very inexpensive software to applications whose price tag will make you cringe. Make your choice according to the investment you're willing to make.

If you plan to use your QuickTime VR movies in any sort of professional or commercial venture -- for example, to sell vacation homes or to provide virtual tours of historical landmarks -- you should spend the money for a professional tool such as Apple's $395 QuickTime VR Authoring Studio or the $299 VR Toolbox 2.0. Both of these programs offer you full control and flexibility in creating and optimizing your movie, which often results in the best image quality.

Of course, if you only want to show off your vacation hideaway or your new apartment to family and friends, you don't need to spend the big bucks. A couple of consumer QuickTime VR programs sell for less than $100. These include MGI's $50 PhotoVista (formerly Live Picture), and ArcSoft's $30 Panorama Maker 2000. Although they lack some of the whiz-bang features (such as hot spots) of the pricier titles and may have trouble with complicated images, their templates and automated approach means fewer decisions on your part and quicker results.

Because this column is all about making Mac creations the cheap and easy way (I mean, why sweat if you don't have to?) I'll be using PhotoVista -- which I've found to be the most reliable and forgiving of the low-end options. That said, the steps of the QuickTime VR process are essentially the same regardless of the program you choose.

Step 1: Prepare Your Images

Before you even open your QuickTime VR software, spend some time organizing and optimizing your images.

If you've already stitched together your individual images into a single panoramic shot using an image editor (see Part Two in this series), you'll need to split it back into individual images. So why, you ask sourly, did you bother to stitch your panorama together when you're just going to break it up again? Well, for the sharpest, most seamless movie, it's best to work out any problems in your panorama before you import the photographs into PhotoVista. This will prove especially helpful if you have a complicated image with fine details or were careless in shooting the photos, resulting in mismatched panels or gaps in the panorama. Another reason: PhotoVista is not an image editor. Although it has a blending engine to automatically smooth obvious discrepancies in tone between two images, PhotoVista won't fix more-serious problems. By piecing together the panorama in an image editor first, you can make sure that the final movie does justice to the subject matter.

Before you begin, be sure to save a copy of your panoramic image somewhere safe. Open your image editor and, using the ruler as a guide, crop the image into segments of equal width (PhotoVista will not accept images that vary in height or width). You should start at the left edge of the panorama and work your way to the right, overlapping the images so that the second (right) half of each is included as the first (left) half of the next. After you save a cropped segment (give each a unique name), reopen the original panorama and repeat the process for the next segment.

Tip: If you're using Adobe Photoshop to edit images you shot with a 35mm camera, double-click on the cropping tool and in the Cropping Tool Options menu, select Fixed Target Size (A). This will restrict your cropping area and ensure that all of your images are the same size. Make the width 384 pixels (B) and the height 256 pixels (C) -- the equivalent of a 3-by-5-inch photograph. You should end up with about twelve separate files.

Whether you're recropping the panorama you made in Part Two or starting with your original photographs, save the new, equal segments into their own folder. Number them consecutively from left to right, starting with "01.jpg." This will help you keep track of your images when it's time to import them into PhotoVista.

Step 2: Import Your Images

Launch PhotoVista and click on the Open Source Images icon (A) to select the images you want to use in your panorama. In the resulting dialog box, navigate to the folder holding your images (B) and click on Add All (C). In the Source Files list at right (D), make sure your images are ordered as they should appear, from left to right. You will not be able to rearrange them in PhotoVista without starting over. Click on OK (E).

PhotoVista imports the images and displays them in order in the workspace. Examine the images to make sure everything looks correct. You can use the scrollbar along the bottom of the workspace (F) to move through the images. Use the arrows at the top of the screen to flip single images (G) or to rotate all of the images (H). When all of the images are correctly positioned, click on the camera icon (I) to open a menu of lenses. Your lens determines the way PhotoVista will warp each image, which affects how well the images match up when you stitch them together. In the list, select the camera lens or camera you used to take the original photographs and click on OK.

Step 3: Stitch Your Images

You are now ready to start the stitching process. Click on the Stitch Panorama button at the bottom of the PhotoVista workspace.

In the Stitching dialog box, select Full 360 Panorama (A) and click on Preview Stitch (B). This will create a low-resolution version of the stitched images so you can quickly experiment with your settings and alignment.

PhotoVista processes the photos, matching similar objects and makes guessing how the images fit together. Scroll through the panorama in the Stitched Results window to look for problems -- there are almost always some. To fix the glitches, return to your workspace (you can close the preview window if you like or leave it open to remind yourself of the initial results).

In the workspace, you'll find the panorama with small yellow corner marks (C) indicating the edges of the individual images. Locate the first misplaced stitch and click on it. The photo's corner marks turn into red dots (D), indicating that the image is active. Now simply click and drag the errant image into the correct position. The image will become slightly transparent to help you match up landmarks for a more precise stitch. Repeat this process for each misaligned photo in the panorama. To check your progress or to experiment with different settings, create a new preview stitch. You can retain the adjustments you've made along the way by selecting the Use Automatic Alignment checkbox in the Stitching dialog box.

Tip: If you aren't satisfied with the results after you've aligned the images as best you can, click on the camera icon to experiment with your lens settings.

Step 5: Convert to QuickTime VR

Once you're satisfied that everything's in the right place, you're ready to make your final stitch. Click on the Stitch Panorama button and this time choose Full Stitch. Carefully scroll through the Stitched Results window. If you find any trouble spots, close the window without saving the stitch and return to the workspace.

When you're happy with the final stitch, it's time to convert it to a QuickTime VR movie. First transform the panorama into a cylinder: under the Panorama menu, scroll down to Convert and select Cylinder.

Finally, open the File menu and select Save As. In the Save dialog box, choose QTVR as your File Type (A). This will add the extension ".mov" to the file name.

Tip: To include your movie on your Web site, use this HTML tag:

<embed src="FILENAME.mov" autoplay=true controller=true loop=false pluginspage="http://www.apple.com/quicktime/">

The Last Word

For further inspiration, you can take a look at what other people are doing with QuickTime VR. The Armchair Travel Company www.armchair-travel.com, for example, lets viewers explore exotic locales such as the Taj Mahal from the comfort of their living rooms. And the Multimedia Library's Web Site List offers links to dozens of QuickTime VR movies.

In future Homemade Mac articles, we'll show and discuss creative Mac projects by Macworld readers. To comment on this QuickTime VR project, add tips or descriptions of craft projects you've done, or just show off your own QuickTime VR movies, visit Macworld 's Homemade Mac forum thread.

Associate Editor KELLY LUNSFORD hates computerized dolphins but loves helping people create fun projects with their Macs. Previous Homemade Mac articles can be found on Macworld 's Mac Crafts subject page.

Crop your panorama into segments of equal width using an image editor to prevent hassles later, when importing it to your panorama-making software.
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