Virtual-Reality Production Tools

You can call it immersive imaging, or you can call it interactive photography, but it's more fun to call it virtual reality. With Apple's QuickTime VR technology, you can create panoramic movies (scenes that users can explore with the mouse and keyboard) and object movies (which let users rotate and examine objects). Although Apple's $395 QuickTime VR Authoring Studio remains the best all-around VR authoring package (see Reviews, March 1998), competing programs have some feature and price advantages. I tested three programs from VR Toolbox ( http://www.vrtoolbox.com ): VR PanoWorx 1.01, for creating panoramas; VR ObjectWorx 1.01, for creating object movies; and VR SceneWorx 1.0, for linking multiple VR movies into scenes. I also tested AdessoSoft's PanoTouch 1.01 ( http://www.adessosoft.com ), an Adobe Photoshop plug-in that makes it easy to retouch and enhance panoramas.


VR PanoWorx is nearly identical to its predecessor, Roundabout Logic's Nodester 1.5 (see Reviews, October 1998). A single tabbed window steps you through importing original images, stitching them, and compressing the final panorama, but new commands facilitate the rotation and reorganization of imported images, chores that Nodester doesn't handle well. VR PanoWorx also supports URL hot spots, which link to Web addresses. When exporting a final panorama, you can create a low-resolution streaming preview–a feat that even Apple's Authoring Studio can't perform. Like Nodester (and unlike Apple's Authoring Studio), VR PanoWorx has a built-in image editor and lets you reduce a panorama's file size–features that can eliminate side trips to Photoshop for minor touch-ups and Web optimizing.

On the downside, VR PanoWorx's approach to saving files is cumbersome. To simplify moving projects among computers or platforms, the program stores both the original source images and the stitched panorama in a single file that can be 35MB or more–and that can take a good half-minute to open or save. By comparison, Apple's Authoring Studio stores pointers to your original files, so its documents are extremely small.

Like its panorama-making cousin, VR ObjectWorx is nearly identical to its earlier incarnation–Widgetizer–but adds Mac OS 8.5 interface tweaks and support for URL hot spots. It also shares Widgetizer's biggest shortcomings: no cropping features and the inability to import conventional QuickTime movies.

Although QuickTime VR lets you store multiple movies in a single disk file, with hot spots enabling users to jump from one node to another, Nodester and VR PanoWorx are limited to creating VR movies containing just one node. Enter VR SceneWorx, the only stand-alone program for creating multiple-node VR movies. Boasting features that even QuickTime VR Authoring Studio lacks, VR SceneWorx lets you import existing content–single-node panoramas, object movies, conventional movies, and still images–and link it using hot spots.

VR SceneWorx shares its siblings' tabbed-interface design but, unlike the others, supports Mac OS 8.5 Open and Save dialog boxes. You can import a background image file to aid in scene design, and VR SceneWorx has a set of simple drawing tools for creating a background.

After mapping out a scene, you import movies and images, position them on the background, and create hot spots to link them to each other or to Web pages. You can then export everything to a single QuickTime movie, optionally recompressing some or all of the media. A preview mode lets you test your hot spots and links. However, VR SceneWorx lacks an undo feature, and its manual–like those of its siblings–is inadequate.


Experienced VR producers will import a stitched panorama's PICT file into Photoshop, retouch it, and create a new panorama. The problem is that the contents of a stitched PICT appear warped, making many retouching jobs difficult or impossible.

With AdessoSoft's PanoTouch, a plug-in for Photoshop 4 and later, you use the PanoTouch Import command to open a stitched PICT; PanoTouch unwarps the PICT and displays it as a QuickTime VR movie, complete with zoom and pan controls (see "Retouching with PanoTouch"). Navigate to the area of the panorama you want to retouch and click on Import, and PanoTouch extracts that portion, unwarps it, and opens it as a new image file. The PanoTouch Export command automatically replaces that portion of the original stitched PICT, which you can convert to a panorama using the authoring tool of your choice.

On the downside, PanoTouch can't import and unwarp an entire stitched PICT at once. If you need to retouch several noncontiguous areas, you have to endure the import-export routine for each. PanoTouch can't work with partial panoramas, and the workaround (described in the excellent manual) is cumbersome.


VR PanoWorx and VR ObjectWorx are fine production programs, despite their shoddy documentation and colossal file sizes; VR SceneWorx is a reasonably priced, well-designed program that every serious QuickTime VR developer should consider. For casual VR producers, PanoTouch does too little and costs too much. But for VR professionals, PanoTouch is a genuinely useful, if pricey, tool for polishing panoramas.

Virtual Toolbox          
Company Product Mouse
Rating
List Price Phone Pros Cons
AdessoSoft PanoTouch 1.01 3.0 mice $149 650/903-2289 Simplifies retouching; elegant design; good documentation. Cant import entire PICT; poor support for partial panoramas; somewhat costly.
VR Toolbox VR ObjectWorx 1.01 3.0 mice $150 2/767-4947 Straightforward interface. Cant import linear movies; no cropping features.
  VR PanoWorx 1.01 3.0 mice $150 412/767-4947 Straightforward interface; convenient Web optimizing features. Creates large files; slow open and save times
  VR SceneWorx 1.0 3.0 mice $90 412/767-4947 Built-in drawing tools; preview mode lets you test links. Lacks undo command.

April 1999 page: 48

n alternative to QuickTime VR is Interactive Pictures' (423/482-3000, http://www.ipix.com ) Ipix, which offers some unique advantages&#150a;d also some big disadvantages.

Unlike QuickTime VR panoramas, Ipix scenes are spherical: users can look straight up and straight down. Spherical images often are of little value for outdoor scenes (who wants to look down at a dirty sidewalk?) but are ideal for many interior subjects, such as a room with an ornate ceiling. You shoot Ipix scenes with a fish-eye lens, which captures a full 180-degree hemisphere. While QuickTime VR demands a dozen or more images to capture a full scene, Ipix requires just two.

Interactive Pictures offers numerous Ipix development tools, including kits that bundle a digital camera, fish-eye adapter, tripod and mounting bracket, and production software. I tested the $1,995 Ipix Pro kit (

2.5 mice
), which includes an Olympus D-340L camera. The kit's software, Ipix Wizard, uses a series of straightforward dialog boxes to step you through the production process. My results were only fair, with stitching artifacts frequently visible where the two images met.

For playback, Ipix offers free Windows and Mac OS plug-ins, as well as a Java applet that eliminates the need to download a plug-in. Version 2.0 of Ipix Wizard, due out by the time you read this, will add the ability to create multiple-bandwidth versions of a scene and improve Java playback.

Ipix Wizard includes serial-numbered keys that enable you to create 12 to 24 scenes, depending on the package you buy. To make more scenes, you buy additional keys at $25 per scene.

Although Ipix's spherical imaging is potentially valuable for some applications, the stitching quality and per-scene charges put Ipix a distant second to QuickTime VR.

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