Panoramic Images with StitcherEZ and Apple's QuickTimeVR
I often ride my motorcycles into some beautiful areas in Thailand, where I have taken countless photographs. Using a scanner and image-adjusting software, I have tried to create panoramas of the views: for example north of Srisawat in Kanchababuri, looking across the lake towards the hills beyond; or over the crest, in the direction of Tak; or a little further, looking down to the Dan Chang reservoir. Most of my attempts have been disappointing.
At the Shangri-La hotel last year (November 1 - 3), at the second of the 2002 Apple shows, Dennis Biela, demonstrated just how to do this and more, including 360 degree panoramas that use Apple's QuicktimeVR functions: available in Quicktime from version 5 onwards (currently at version 6.1).
He was using software called Stitcher and had already created many such images for advertising promotions and for museums. Some of these are not only 360 degrees horizontally but include overhead views too. Some sites at which examples of QuicktimeVR panoramas can be seen are listed at the end of the article: I would particularly suggest the view of the Eiffel Tower.
Once home, I accessed the Stitcher website and found that this software was way out of my price range (at $499). All was not lost. A few months later, looking through a CDROM that came with Macworld, I found a shareware copy of StitcherEZ: a lightweight version of the program.
This (and a demo version) can also be downloaded from Realviz and is priced at $59 (or €59). Downloads (depending on language choice) are about 6.3MB for Windows versions of StitcherEZ (version 1.0) and 7.1MB for the Mac versions. System requirements include a G4 PowerMac, but the software works quite well on my G3 iMac with 384MB of memory.
Installation was a breeze and the user has access to three types of image creation: the panorama, a horizontal "mosaic" stitching (an example included was of a famous tree), and a feature to enable scanning of large documents on an A4 flatbed scanner.
After practising with the included examples, my own initial attempts were all failures. I was using scanned images that someone had provided and the originals were not all taken with identical settings. The tutorial is quite specific on this: no change of resolutions (640 x 480 minimum), no change of aspect, no change of zoom.
As luck would have it, I managed to get my sticky hands on a new Sony digital camera recently. After borrowing a tripod, I went out into the football field at the back of my office and took lots of images. The tripod was marked every 10 degrees and I ended up with 38 shots: a couple of extra for luck. This turned out to be too many and the software recommends an overlap of one-third for each image.
I plugged the camera into the USB port on the keyboard and the Mac started iPhoto automatically, correctly identifying the camera make and model. I pressed "Import" (leaving the box for emptying the camera unchecked) and the images were downloaded within a couple of minutes. If you use the Mac for this operation, do not forget to unmount the camera when you are finished (put the icon in the Trash).
Before working with the images, I used "Export" to put copies of them in a folder. As I mention (above) the first attempt failed. I was lazy and after clicking on the type of image to be created (panorama), I selected "All" when choosing images.
On my second attempt, I imported only 18 of the images, then started the process. StitcherEZ thinks about it for a while, then (in a small panel) one, out-of-focus, black and white image appears. Bit by bit, other parts of the panorama are added. When the basic image is done, the monochrome picture slowly comes into focus and finally, colour is added.
When I repeated the process on the iMac with all 38 shots, the result was the same. The probable cause is duplication of some images. Removing about 20 images from the process produced a proper result.
At the output stage of the process, there is a choice of modes: a computer- or printed image. Having selected one of these, once the particular operation is done, you can go back and select the other. With the computer image, there is a sliding bar to select the quality. I used a setting of slightly above halfway and the final image was 420KB at a resolution of 640 x 480. The initial 18 images (at 1280 x 960) had been 620KB - 680KB each.
As a sort of reminder to put me firmly in my place, the processing panel includes one of a selection of panoramas already processed from images taken by professional photographers.
With the process on the iMac, I used the maximum setting and this produced a 1MB image. The smallest setting produced an image of 92KB (with the same 640 x 480 resolution) and this is acceptable enough for web-use. A print-ready image, at 50% of the image size, gave a file of 2.1MB and at its full, printed size would be almost 2 metres long. To view any of the Stitcher-created panoramas requires a recent version of QuickTime. The printable version can be opened in a graphics program.
I dropped the first image created onto the Quicktime icon in the Dock. The application opened showing the buildings around the football field in good detail. The demonstration version displays large yellow "RealViz" banners at spaced intervals in the final image. These are removed when the software is purchased.
To view the image, you need a recent version of QuickTime installed. Place the cursor on the image and hold down the mouse button. Move the cursor to the left or right and the image will move. A file of the lowest quality (92KB) loads: this saves space and download time. The highest qulaity image produced with this software was about 1MB. I kept one QT image of 420KB and if you would like to see this, click here.
Dennis Biela had recommended working in uncompressed image formats, but ordinary users do not have the luxury of memory or disk space (nor the cameras) and it is not the high end user that StitcherEZ is aimed at. I am never going to create advertising campaigns for BMW or VolksWagen, nor is the Smithsonian Institute likely to hire me; but an all-round view of places I visit might be interesting to those who visit my website (once I have found some space).
As is to be expected, Apple's own web pages are a major source for information about QuickTimeVR, although some of the data is not easy to find. On the Apple Developer's website, there is an online book about the technology as well as several useful links to other sources, including software sites. Registration may be needed for access here.
A page of VR images is at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/gallery/cubicvr/ although Apple should be shot for hiding this so well.
Although Stitcher creates views with the camera in the centre, there are programs which have the object in the middle of the image. An example of this is the VW site : click on the top image and you will have a view all round the Beetle (this is sometimes slow to download); while the bottom image provides a view inside the passenger compartment.
NASA has an image from the Mars Pathfinder expedition (the purple and yellow sections are on all downloads) but, despite the major technological achievements, rocks and sand may not be to everyone's taste.
Far more spectacular is the view from Everest.
If you look at these images during the download, you will see a clearly delineated framework displayed. The original QuickTime image has been "sliced" to make downloading easier and to allow quicker display of parts of the image, rather than waiting for the whole.
StitcherEZ is not going to allow you (or me) to produce such high quality images. There are other factors in the equation: software, high quality input, lots of RAM, and skill.
For further information, e-mail to Graham K. Rogers.
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