Monday, July 13, 2009

Ups and Downs at Aerial Vr

It's been a few weeks of interesting technical achievements and setbacks here at Aerial Vr. It's time to let you in on part of our technical journey.

The good news first .... Chris has put his mechanical design talents to good use developing one of the world's largest camera tripods. We'll soon put a camera with its robotic remote controlled mount 50 feet in the air with perhaps a half hour of man-effort. We're proud of this of course but we're not strutting around like a north Korean with a nuclear missile either. This is not rocket science. It's also a problem that anyone with money can solve. There are collapsible tripods that will lift a camera up that high on the market already and Google will be glad to help you find them. Just get ready to drop a couple grand down your equipment hole before you lift a camera up into the sky.

We're proud because Chris did it for under $500. He's not going to tell every camera buff on the internet how either. We'll just say that he did it with an assortment of commercially available nesting fiberglass poles, some clamping blocks, some angle iron, a few nuts and bolts and hose clamps and a good drill press. The legs all collapse alongside the center pole to create a bundle 10' long and a foot or so in diameter and just light enough for one strong man to carry a 100 feet before collapsing on the pavement. It can be divided into two bundles and carried by 2 men a good deal further in a pinch, or so we hope. We don't want to have heart attacks and we don't want to hire porters. They're both expensive in Rhode Island.

We can let you in on a few more of the general operational parameters of the tripod. It doesn't have a crank. Someone needs to stand on a 6' ladder in order to mount the camera and slide it upwards into the sky one 10' pole and one clamp at a time. Finally and importantly, it will need to be guyed and sandbagged in order to go much beyond 20' into the air safely. We plan to guy it from somewhere near the top with nylon cord, probably down to its own 4 feet for simplicity. A couple of sandbags on the base should keep it stable in a light wind. I said "should." We have yet to lift it skywards with any weight on it. If we had a rocket scientist on staff we'd ask him to calculate how much weight it would take to stabilize our tripod in a 10 mph wind given our 50' max height and our 4 feet arranged in a circle 14' in diameter. It's not that we're not safety conscious or good engineers. It's that we had to lay off our rocket scientist last week due to the economy. We'll just ask our loved ones to stand clear, say a prayer and hoist away. It may not be how you put someone on the moon but it's a time honored experimental approach. It worked for the Wright Brothers. It will work for us too.

But it's not about having the biggest tripod on the block ... not really. Our palms sweat and our pulse quickens when we think about what sort of images we might capture with this marvelous contraption. We're thinking about catching the lovely curve of a coastline from up there or the majestic sweep of lawn leading up to a mansion or two down in Newport. We have a series of public service panoramas planned that will allow us to realize these ambitions without having to waste good time negotiating a paycheck. We hope to photograph Save the Bay's very green and solar panel bedecked roof using it. We may even have enough altitude to hoist the camera in the parking lot north of their building and get a view of their saltmarsh south of it. We hope to use it to photograph the front of their south facing building in the clear morning light. We also hope to capture unforgettable images of two of Fall River's iconic architectural structures: St. Anne's church and Durfee Highschool. If we have our way or should I say "if we're able to realize our ambition" then soon people from Tokyo to Taiwan will be studying these two remarkably beautiful stone facades and planning their vacations accordingly. I hyperbolize in order to amuse but the telling fact remains. We'll be using our new tripod to realize the aerial part of our name in the next few weeks or we'll collect a few bruises and a sprained back in the attempt.

But it's not one achievement after another here at Aerial Vr. We've collected our lumps as well. We won't play our violin too loudly or plaintively but this is one hell of a complicated way to take a picture. On a bad day it will send you running for your insta-matic. The lens on our digital SLR has to "talk" to our camera if you please. (We used to happy if the lens let light through. Now it has to talk and perhaps more to the point be heard.) The camera has to talk to our usb hub. The hub has to talk to our "hot spot" radio frequency gadget. The hotspot has to talk to our laptop's network card. Once inside our pc, the line of communication is more or less safe, (as safe as anything running in one of Bill Gates' creations can be) still, at least 4 pieces of software have to be opened in the correct order and dozens of operational parameters set properly in order to take the series of photographs that will become a virtual reality panorama.

One of the software programs is called Pappy Wizard. The Wizard talks to the robotic camera mount we call Ansel. It talks through the same cards, hubs and hotspots as our camera. The Wizard and Ansel communicate just fine as long as the phone lines don't go down. There are a half dozen batteries, a half dozen electrical and usb connections and about 100 ways that the whole contraption can refuse to work. The Wizard is very clever at aiming our camera with the help of Ansel's servos but don't think of Captain Picard saying "make it so!" There's a whole engineering department working hard to realize his orders. The wizard needs to be informed about the camera and lens. Everything from the lens' focal length to the camera's array type (there are 3) need to be entered correctly before Ansel and the Wizard can be set on their happy robotic way to capturing overlapping images.

All this to tell you that we went out recently with high photographic hopes and we came up short. Our Tokina lens wouldn't talk to our camera. It needs an adjustment that only the chiropractors at Tokina can provide. A second lens' focal length had to corrected due to our camera's array size. The Wizard needed to be informed of that fact and wasn't. So it was a swing and a miss. We came home without the prize we sought but just a little wiser and a little more determined to bring it home next time. Stay tuned to this station. We'll have some amazing virtual reality photos from high off the ground for people to enjoy in the next few weeks or our name isn't Aerial Vr.

Fair Journey,

Brian Shriver

Aerial Vr - "Your location in high definition virtual reality."
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This is the blog of Aerial Vr ( 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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