Full Moon


360 panoramas using motorized tripods, video cameras, or digital cameras
Aug 16, 1999


Q: I want to be able to film continuously 360 degrees with a camcorder attached to a battery powered motorized pan head controlled by a Macintosh. Any suggestions on where I can purchase this type of pan head and what kind of software I should use to distribute the panoramas?


A: Since I don't know exactly what it is you want to do I'll provide a number of different suggestions in the hope that one of them will answer your question or at least point you in the right direction.

The first candidate is Surveyor Corporation's Transit RCM (robotic camera mount) which provides accurate remote pan/tilt positioning for video camera systems via computer control. They provide software for PCs, but since it's a standard serial connection you should be able to write your own controller using something like SuperCard. <www.surveyorcorp.com>

But buying a remote control pan head seems like an expensive solution to your problem. If you're going to use a video camera, you might want to look at VideoBrush Panorama software. This will take a video sequence that is shot by rotating the camera while it is recording. It then turns this sequence into a QuickTime VR movie! It works; but is limited by the angle of view of the camera; you should get a wide angle adapter. Unfortunately, it's Windows software, but it might run under VirtualPC. <www.videobrush.com>

If you go that route, all you need is a tripod that makes it simple to rotate the camera smoothly, ideally around the nodal point of the lens. The panoramic tripod heads from Kaidan and Peace River might work: <www.kaidan.com> <www.peaceriverstudios.com/ppindex.html> Of course, you might find that one of the regular tripod manufacturers makes a tripod head that does the job:

Manfrotto <www.manfrotto.com>
Sima Products Corporation <
Slik Corporation <
Velbon <

There are definitely powered tripod heads around; but they are expensive. They are often used for remote control of television cameras in small studios, meeting rooms etc. (televising the local council meetings.) I'm not sure where you would find information about them; you might want to try a professional video gear supplier. Unfortunately, I suspect that these are not battery powered units; though you could possibly rig up some way of powering them vis a large battery.

I suspect that you're looking for something small and light; which is all you'd need to rotate the camera 360 degrees. Unfortunately, Most tripod heads assume that you'll be moving the camera in other dimensions, making them much more bulky and expensive.

Sony makes a special video camera that is controllable by computer. I don't know too much about it, but Rearden Technology, the developers of SiteCam for the Macintosh sell it as SiteZap, which is a remote controllable web cam software with the camera. <www.sitezap.com>

One of the problems you'll find is that the video camera will produce a comparatively low resolution image compared to a film camera or even the low-end (under $1,000) digital cameras. If you've going to do a lot of these you might want to look at a different solution. Cyclovision makes a low cost (~$900) lens that takes a panorama in one shot working with a digital camera. <www.cyclovision.com>

Then there is a company that has shown an immersive video system, though they haven't formally announced it. I know that's not what you want to do, but it's cool none the less: "Immersive Media and Enroute announce first immersive video system" <www.immersivemedia.com/press/99-03_lasvegas.html>

As to which software to distribute with, there's really only three solutions to consider; QuickTime VR (www.apple.com), IPIX (www.ipix.com) and SmoothMove (www.infinitepictures.com). IPIX only works with images taken with a 180 degree lens, and charges per node, so if I were you I'd go with QuickTime VR. If you end up needing stitching software, I'd recommend either Live Pictures PhotoVista (if they still sell it) or Apple's QuickTime VR Authoring Studio. Either does a great job of stitching panoramas. Apple's tool is best if you want to do object movies.


But wait! There's also a free solution; Some software called Panorama Tools by Helmut Dersch. It's free, but requires that you have Photoshop since it is a Photoshop plugin. You've got to check out this URL which shows an example created using a Nikon CoolPix 950 and a fisheye lens:


So all you have to do is take two pictures (each half of a hemisphere) and it produces the final image. Much faster and easier than most other methods. Image quality is fine for web use; maybe too low for print or scenes with lot's of detail that you want to be able to zoom in on (but that kind of thing is for CD rather than web.)

I'm thinking about buying the fisheye lens for the CoolPix 950 just because of this software.

Helmut actually recommends the RealVR (now Zoom 3.2) viewer from LivePicture and SmoothMove because they are smaller players than QuickTime VR, and they support spherical projection.


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