Walkabout digital visions
Tuesday 27 June 2000

My mother always told me she had eyes in the back of her head, and she demonstrated that facility for almost all her life. But when it comes to all-round high-resolution vision, nothing anywhere on the planet can match an $85,000 ($28,900. US) chunky, motor-driven, digital camera called the Panoscan.

It is capable of a base resolution of 7072 by 22,000 pixels, producing a file of 560 megabytes on the computer to which it downloads its images. Full scans are of 390 degrees to allow truly seamless joining of the image.

The camera weighs about 3.5 kilograms, sits on a motorised tripod that itself costs about as much as a good secondhand car and comes with AC-DC battery and even a solar charging kit. There's also an object turntable that can be integrated with the camera to produce rollout or "walkaround" images.

The Panoscan was designed by Ted Chavalas, a Los Angeles photographer and website developer, who spent eight years on the project before he brought the camera to market about 18 months ago.

One of these paragons of digital photography is now busy in Australia, in the hands of Melbourne photographer Brenton Staggard, who works for the camera's owners and local distributors, a recently-formed specialist outfit called WideX-stream.

Panoscan's arrival adds to the importance of Melbourne as Australia's centre of virtual reality photography and video.

The big name in the field is the company known as Ipix, short for Interactive Pictures, whose Australian arm was established here three years ago.

Meanwhile, Gary Clarke, chief executive of WideX-stream, said most of the work done so far had been in production of panoramic and walkaround images for websites and promotional CDs.

His company has been dealing with organisations such as Essendon and Carlton football clubs in promoting their involvement with Colonial Stadium.

"For example, we do a panoramic shot from the middle of the ground showing the corporate boxes and the signage. We then put hot links into the image so that if, for example, you click with your computer mouse on the window of a corporate box, the image changes to a panorama of the interior of the box.

Click on the window from inside and you are shown a wide-angle view of the field from the seats.

"It's all done in QuickTime, which we have found to be a fabulous program for this kind of work," Clarke said.

QuickTime is Apple Computer's platform-agnostic multimedia software used for images and virtual reality files.

Staggard said a full panoramic scan at the highest resolution took about 15 minutes to complete. But images could be taken much more quickly at resolutions as low as 884 by 3500, giving a file of only 3.5MB.

"We use that for previews to check lighting and things such as the layout of furnishings, say, when we are doing a house interior."

For website panoramas, technicians used QuickTime and Apple's G4 PowerMacs in their studio to compress images to as little as 100k, Staggard said.

"Some people call it the Rolls-Royce of panoramic cameras," Clarke said. "But I look on it more as the 18-wheel semi-trailer truck; it's so strong and robust you can take it anywhere. It even comes with its own backpack. The only thing it is not good for is movement. It scans through a one-pixel slit and the camera moves around on the tripod head. In that mode it is more an architectural device. Also, there is no film, no stitching and no post-processing."

Panoscan may also be used as a standard digital camera and when used with Phase One's QuickTime automated turntable system, does seamless rollout or "walkaround" images of stationary objects - anything from a ski boot to a car.

One of the more spectacular uses of the Panoscan, he said, was being made by a photographer working for General Motors in the United States.

"He does sensational car interiors," Clarke said. The interior panoramas were then used on dealer websites which, increasingly, were being used to sell cars to the public.

"GM in the US has told their ad agencies that any car interiors to go on to the web are to be shot with a Panoscan camera because of the high quality of the scanning."

Meanwhile, IPIX Australia managing director Evan Jones said Ipix's arrival led to the establishment of a wide network of specialist photographers and developers centred in Melbourne, making it a focus of the industry.

Ipix is at present involved with coverage of Mount Everest attempts and, according to sources in the industry, will be doing a great deal at the Olympic Games in Sydney later this year.