capsule review

One-Shot VR Panorama Systems

At a Glance
  • Sunpak SURROUNDPHOTO

The VR technology built into Apple's QuickTime software makes it possible for anyone to create, view, and navigate 360-degree panoramic images. Shooting such images, though, usually involves wide-angle lenses, special tripod mounts, and a time-consuming setup and shooting procedure. But two new camera lens attachments, Kaidan's 360 One VR and Sunpak's SurroundPhoto, let you create full 360-degree panoramas with a single shot.

Both lens attachments work the same way. A parabolic mirror attaches to the lens threads on your digital camera. To shoot a panorama, you point the camera straight up in the air or toward the ceiling -- the mirror design reflects the 360-degree view into the camera -- and take a picture. After transferring the resulting, very warped image to your computer, you open the picture in the included dewarping software. This software does the necessary calculations to dewarp the image, which it then turns into a QuickTime VR movie.

The 360 One VR and SurroundPhoto have different designs and software, but each is useful in its own way.

Kaidan 360 One VR

Kaidan's 360 One VR attachment is the larger, pricier package, but its excellent hardware and software design, as well as its output quality, makes it the better choice for users who are serious about creating excellent VR panoramas.

To use the 360 One VR, you must first attach a metal mounting plate to your camera's lens thread. From the mounting plate, a cylindrical array extends straight out from the camera's lens and provides support for the odd-shaped mirror at the top of the unit. Unfortunately, as of press time, Kaidan provided an adapter only for mounting the unit on a Nikon Coolpix 990 or 995. (Although the company doesn't have other adapters planned, you can purchase step-up rings that should do the trick.)

The 360 One VR is not small -- the metal mounting plate is roughly 5 inches in diameter, and the entire assembly extends about 8 inches from the camera's lens. Kaidan includes what looks like a large, clear, plastic mayonnaise jar to protect the assembly during transport, and the whole thing adds a good deal of weight and bulk to your camera. However, it's far less bulky than a tripod and professional-quality panoramic head.

Shooting with the 360 One VR is very easy. After manually focusing the camera to 7 inches, you use aperture priority or manual controls to select a small aperture. You probably won't need a tripod; you can simply hold the camera straight above your head while you shoot. Exposure calculation is usually a concern when shooting a multishot panorama, but with these devices, you can trust your camera's automatic metering instead, making shooting a breeze.

Kaidan's PhotoWarp software could not be easier to use. The OS 9- and OS X-compatible program opens your image and provides a simple, circular cropping tool that allows you to select the area of your image where the mirror's reflection is. A click of the DeWarp button automatically dewarps the image and creates your output file. From the Format dialog you can choose to output a flat, dewarped image or a QuickTime VR movie. PhotoWarp can even automatically output an HTML file containing your movie or image.

The only thing conspicuously absent from the program is an image-adjustment tool. We'd like to see the addition of brightness and contrast commands, and a levels control would be ideal. In the meantime, you can perform these types of corrections by generating a flat image, touching it up in an image editor, and then converting it to a VR movie.

Sunpak SurroundPhoto

Though the SurroundPhoto is similar in concept to the 360 One VR, its design is much simpler, and its price is much lower. An extension tube attaches to the front of your camera; Sunpak sells step-up rings for various camera models. A thin metal tube connects to a clear plastic plate at the end of the first tube, and the Surround Photo mirror screws on to the end of that second tube; it doesn't feel as sturdy as the 360 One VR, but the SurroundPhoto fits into a small pouch that can be easily carried in a pocket, making it ideal for the panoramic photographer on the move.

The SurroundPhoto's software is like Kaidan's PhotoWarp application, in that it dewarps the resulting distorted image, but it includes brightness and contrast sliders, and it runs only in OS 9. (A Sunpak representative says the company is planning to release OS X-compatible software in the near future.)

The $249 SurroundPhoto system has a much lower initial cost than the 360 One VR, but the dewarping software watermarks all of your images with an intrusive SurroundPhoto logo. To remove the logo, you must buy a $7-per-image license from Sunpak. The watermarked images are perfectly usable for prototyping or for showing to clients, but that pricing structure may not appeal to everyone.

Overall, we found the 360 One VR's output to be slightly superior. The optic device seems to capture a larger area and generally delivers slightly better image quality.

Macworld's Buying Advice

If you regularly shoot VR images, you'll want to check out this new technology. The 360 One VR is worth its price both for its image quality and its unlimited license. But if you need portability, or don't want to pay $999 up front, the SurroundPhoto is a fine choice.

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Easy to use
    • Small and portable
    • Software includes basic image-adjustment tools

    Cons

    • Per-image processing fee can interfere with a smooth workflow
    • Image quality not quite as good as the 360 One VR's
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