Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Journey

We do panoramic photographs at aerialvr.com, sometimes aerial ones. It's a strange and exciting place to be. It's a relatively new technology that's been made possible by the advent of digital technology and of course by computers and the internet. It's already so good that the "vr" part (short for virtual reality) is hardly an exageration. It will only get better.

My journey began 6 years ago when I borrowed a digital snapshot camera with the notion of participating in a local art contest. I went to a pleasant spot with a view, aimed my camera at the horizon and took 10 images spanning 180 degrees of view. I took them home and printed them out on my home computer and then manually pieced them together with the aid of an exacto knife and some tape. I framed the resulting 7' long photograph and entered my contest. I took an honorable mention, for concept mostly. It was a little rough in the way of craft but it was still a panoramic photograph: a series of images brought together at their edges to create a larger one with an extremely wide angle of view, but without the usual distortion that wide angle lenses create.

It occurred to me then that someone might be doing digitally what I had done with my knife. I typed "panorama" into the internet and found some free software that would do just what I'd imagined. I loaded the software into my pc along with the 10 photos I'd taken and my pc promptly crashed, overloaded. A friend of mine doing digital photography on a much better computer was intrigued by my project and took it on. He completed it in short order and printed it out. It hangs in my living room to this day. It's still fun to look at.

Roll the calendar to 2009 and enter Christopher Blake. Chris had started a business doing digital panoramas and aerial photography several years back. Chris saw the panoramic photograph on my wall and began to share his own enthusiasm. He wanted someone to write a blog that might attract attention in the blogosphere, some web traffic and new business opportunities. He also needed someone to share photography duties. I signed up with gusto!

Chris' journey towards aerial panoramic photography really began in the early 1990's with hang gliding. Somewhere along the line he hung up his wings but must have missed his bird's eye view and began to ruminate on how he could recreate the experience without the hazards. His first idea was to mount a camera on the bottom of a radio controlled model helicopter. He wasn't the first to do this. It was an impressive machine with several horsepower and a 5' diameter rotor but he watched a fellow enthusiast and expert pilot crash one into the side of a house after the tiniest of mechanical failures and wondered if that was really how he wanted to hoist an expensive camera into the air. He decided to try something safer.

Chris bought a high performance kite that with a stiff wind could easily lift his camera off the ground. Actually, he lofted the kite part of the way into the sky, attached his camera to a little trolley of his own design and then let the line out. The kite went up and hauled the camera up after itself. The camera was set to take a series of photos on timer and despite the swinging and swaying about one of the shots was bound to be worth the effort. It was fun but it had serious limitations.

His next purchase was a 15' helium filled blimp. He hung his camera on the bottom of that and found a gadget that allowed him to trigger his camera remote control. The blimp was tethered and would orient itself to the wind so the next step was obvious. He had to spin the camera on a mount using a servo motor. Chris put his background in airplane mechanics, radio control devices and mechanical design to work and soon had a remote control robotic camera mount hanging from his blimp. It was too heavy to fly well but a bigger blimp solved that problem.

Not a bad rig! Chris was soon traveling to scenic spots around Rhode Island to fly his blimp and take photographs. At some point the technology for stitching digital photographs together into panoramas came across his radar and the notion for Aerial VR was born. Some of his early work entailed doing aerial panoramas for developers of tall buildings who were trying to market their view. Often it's not possible to fly an aircraft of any type under 500' altitude. The blimp is an attractive option. The pay scale is attractive too for that sort of work but it doesn't come along that often and good flying and photography days come along even more rarely.

We're approaching if not a "perfect storm" of events then a series of technological events that are making Aerial VR an exciting business proposition. Digital cameras have come a long way. A digital SLR can now slam away 10 or more beautifully focused megapixels of digital imagery several times a second. They are easily remote controllable, communicating to standard laptops over inexpensive equipment designed for cordless networking. Chris' blimp supported remote controlled robotic camera mount (bsrcrcm??) takes these amazing cameras safely up into the sky and points them in the right direction. Chris' next generation of robotic mounting equipment promises to be even more stable and accurately positionable and is likely to go into use this summer.

The storm isn't over yet. One has to consider what happens next to the digital data. State of the art stitching software puts all of the imagery together into a seamless panoramic bubble, or "panobubble" as we often refer to them. The next part of the problem is bringing the panobubble to the consumer of photographic delights and getting him to step inside the virtual reality it creates around him. High resolution panobubbles are data heavy. A company named KR Pano has created a viewer that runs on a standard pc. It allows the viewer to "point" himself in any direction and to zoom in and out. Zoom out to enjoy the panoramic view from horizon to horizon. Zoom in to practically count the whiskers on that squirrel perched on a branch hundreds of yards away. So the answer to the piles of data problem is to just shovel the part the veiwer has "requested" by adjusting the pan and zoom settings on his viewer.

Another company named 360Cities has adopted the KRPano viewer and perfected the art of streaming just the "requested" data over the internet. Now the consumer can enjoy virtual reality with nothing more exotic than a standard pc with a dsl type connection. The mighty (and mightily prescient) Google has recognized the potential of this technology and backed one its best providers at 360Cities.

Where does that leave us at Aerial VR? We're not sure. We're on a quest. We're on a quest for cool. We're looking for wow and we want to share it, our cool bird's eye view on the planet. Who might enjoy this technology? Who might decide they even need it? Who might benefit from it and what will they be willing to pay for it. Real Estate developers? Real Estate sales people? The tourist industry? The professor of architecture in the classroom? The virtual tourist or the tourist industry? We're not sure where our holy grail lies but one thing we're sure of, we intend to enjoy the journey in search of it and shoot some really fun photos on the way there.

Aerial Vr - "Your location in high definition virtual reality."
email us with your comments and ideas at btshriver@aerialvr.com & cblake@aerialvr.com
For more about our services see our website at www.aerialvr.com

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This is the blog of Aerial Vr (www.aerialvr.com). We create virtual reality photographs for viewing on the web. We also send our cameras into the sky on a variety of kites and blimps to see the world from a bird's eye view. We're blogging about our experiences as this exciting new technology and the market around it develops. We're also dedicated to developing a resource for visitors to the Narragansett Bay & Southcoast areas so that they can explore in virtual reality before they come. Try the links above to see all of the content we present in this blog, especially the "Vr Map" link which presents information with a Google map as starting point. "Home" will bring up several recent posts. Or page downwards and try the "Labels" or "Blog Archives" to bring up blog posts and panoramas from our expanding portfolio that fall within a given category. Fair Winds!

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