Panoscan

The second most expensive thing I've handled is the World Cup. I did what no England captain since Bobby Moore has managed - albeit in Asda's High Wycombe store - during a bizarre tour the famous trophy was taken on around the supermarket's UK outlets in 1998. The most expensive is the Panoscan, a £20,000 digital panoramic-capture camera. Digital Panoramic photography took off in the mid-1990s, with the advent of the perspective-correcting software QuickTime VR (QTVR). This allowed for "immersive imaging" - letting the computer-using viewer step inside a correct-perspective 360-degree image, with the ability to see and zoom in all directions. Stitched-up
Prior to the Panoscan, the methods of capturing such an image involved taking a succession of digital - or, God forbid, film-based - images covering the required 360 degrees, and then stitching them together electronically. The stitching process can take an age. This is where the Gitzo tripod-mounted Panoscan comes into its own: it involves no film, no scanning, no stitching and no post-production. The camera-back employs digital line-scan technology, which gives it an obscene top resolution of 7,072-x-22,000 pixels in its 360-degree revolution. Even in its lowest resolution setting, it produces fantastically crisp images. A single 15-minute high-res 360-degree scan packs a mighty 565MB. Lighting is also much less of an issue than with standard digital photography, because the Panoscan gives ISO sensitivity of up to 1,600, allowing for shooting in most lighting situations. The image used here was taken on a 28mm Nikon lens, at ISO 800 at 1/30 of a second on an overcast day in the Macworld office - never the best-lit of places. In photographic terms - it's a right result. Flexible lens
Panoscan can be used with a variety of lenses - from 16mm to 50mm - and images transformed into spherical, cylindrical, or conical forms. The system can also be synchronized with a turntable to record "object movies" - views showing all sides of the object on a turntable. It is also capable of taking professional-level studio still photographs. Panoscan's Phase One interface software has a number of useful features. Using Film Curve, over-exposed areas can dimmed and darkened areas lightened. High Shadow Detail letsa images lit by a strong single light-source to be evenly lit. Because the Panoscan is designed to capture still-images only, movement is registered as distortion. So that 15-minute scans aren't ruined by rogue passers-by - or Macworld's deputy editor (see blob, bottom centre), in our case - a click of the mouse halts the scan until the nuisance has passed. Because the flow of pixels has been merely halted, there's no vertical white stripe - like you'd have with film. The Panoscan is designed for mobile use. As well as a mains connection, it comes with a 12V gel-cell battery, from which both the Panoscan and a G3 Power Book can be run. The complete system - including tripod - weighs 40lb.

OUR VERDICT

With a price tag of £20k, the Panoscan was never going to be for anything other than high-end industrial use. Its massively high-res images make it ideal for heavy-duty professional use. Police departments in the US and Europe are looking to use it for capturing crime scenes. Its top-end scans mean that details as small as writing on sweet wrappers in a bin on the other side of a room can be rendered clearly. Architects and estate agents are also lining up to use it, to capture virtual walk-throughs of properties and public buildings. The Louvre in Paris is in the process of shooting a virtual version of its galleries for CD-ROM using the Panoscan. It should prove popular too with specialist photographers - who shoot the interiors of cars and boats for brochures and Web sites, for example. Although it's been around in the US since early 1999, the Panoscan became available for the first time this Europe in January. Renting will be the likeliest means of access to all but the most affluent photographer. The thing with the Panoscan is that it needs a studio of people with specialist skills to get QTVR results. Capturing the image is the easy bit - it's ending up with a professional-looking QuickTime VR movie that's the tough part. First, it requires at least a working knowledge of Adobe Photoshop for touching up and fine-tuning the panoramic image. More complicated, though, is the QTVR rendering process. First we tried using The VR Worx, before realizing it wasn't suitable. Then we looked at Epson Spin Panorama, which worked, but the QTVR resolution and stitching were way off. In the end, we turned to Apple's £279 QuickTime VR Authoring Studio. You can see the result on Macworld Online, at http://www.macworld.co.uk/reviews/vrmovie/. Panoscan's agent for Europe, Cinebuild, insists on training rentees to "an acceptable level".

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