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Monday, August 2, 2010

360 Panorama does instant, awesome panoramas

by Josh Lowensohn

Shooting panoramic photos with a mobile phone can be difficult. Often it requires doing all the work in a software app when you get back from wherever you are, as well as trying to make sure that the phone's camera does not change its white balance or exposure between shots.

Occipital, the creators of the popular RedLaser scanning app (which wassold to eBay last month) have a new iPhone app debuting on Friday called 360 Panorama, which is attempting to change that. For $2.99, users can simply move their phone from left to right to capture a photo panorama. The end result is a single, panoramic photo that requires zero post-processing.

360 Panorama app

To use the app, users just hold their iPhone and move from side to side, capturing the area around them.

(Credit: Screenshots by Josh Lowensohn/CNET)

Behind the scenes the app is actually using the iPhone's video camera, which means that users will need a 3GS or the newer iPhone 4 to use it. The app also takes advantage of the iPhone 4's gyroscope hardware to help judge how quickly you're rotating, so it can figure out what needs to be captured and where you've already been. As it records imagery, it stitches together an image based on your movement, which you can see and track to make any angle corrections. Some modern day point and shoot cameras like Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-W370 are able to do the same thing, though with a larger end result.

Size and distortions are ultimately the two things that limit this app from being as useful as proper photo stitching software. The images it spits out are quite small when compared with the still shots your camera takes. You can see this in the two sample photos I've embedded below (click on each to see it in full size):

A panorama of downtown SF.

A demo shot taken in downtown San Francisco. Normally this would take several shots, but 360 Panorama is able to capture it all at once.

(Credit: Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET)

And a full 360 of an interior:

A 360 panoramic.

A 360 degree shot taken from inside CNET. (click to see in its original size)

(Credit: Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET)
The larger problem is the distortion, which Occipital co-founder Vikas Reddy told me is made worse in indoor situations. His team is working on ways to make it better in a future release, but in the meantime shooting outdoors provides for a much smoother and less jaggy experience. Being in the urban jungle of downtown San Francisco, I wasn't able to fully test how well it would work on something like rolling hills or a forest, but as you can see from the shots above it does a fine job until you hit perfectly straight lines where the software is forced to make a stitch by guesswork.

These issues aside, 360 Panorama is an incredibly neat, and genuinely useful app. It may have no business taking over the job of a good crisp, and low distortion still image, but if you want to quickly capture an incredible amount of detail of the world around you, it's tough to beat.

If you want to see how it works while using it, you can see it in the company's demo video below:

iPhone users can also check out OutmanTech's Video Panorama app ($1.99) and Boinx's You Gotta See This ($1.99), both of which work with the same basic principle.