Virtual reality production tools

Introduction

You can call it immersive imaging, or you can call it interactive photography, but it’s more fun to call it virtual reality. With Apple’s QuickTime VR tech-nology, you can create panoramic movies (scenes that users can explore with the mouse and keyboard) and object movies (which let users rotate and examine objects). Although Apple’s QuickTime VR Authoring Studio (£279 ex VAT; Apple, 0800 783 4846) remains the best all-around VR authoring package, competing programs have some feature and price advantages. I tested three programs from VR Toolbox: VR PanoWorx 1.01, for creating panoramas; VR ObjectWorx 1.01, for creating object movies; and VR SceneWorx 1.0, for linking multiple VR movies into scenes. I also tested AdessoSoft’s PanoTouch 1.01, an Adobe Photoshop plug-in that makes it easy to retouch and enhance panoramas. The Worx
A single tabbed window in VR PanoWorx steps you through importing original images, stitching them, and compressing the final panorama, but new commands facilitate the rotation and reorganization of imported images, chores that Nodester doesn’t handle well. VR PanoWorx also supports URL hot spots, which link to Web addresses. When exporting a final panorama, you can create a low-resolution streaming preview – a feat that even Apple’s Authoring Studio can’t perform. Like Nodester (and unlike Apple’s Authoring Studio), VR PanoWorx has a built-in image editor and lets you reduce a panorama’s file size – features that can eliminate side trips to Photoshop for minor touch-ups and Web optimizing. On the downside, VR PanoWorx’s approach to saving files is cumbersome. To simplify moving projects among computers or platforms, the program stores both the original source images and the stitched panorama in a single file that can be 35MB or more – and that can take a good half-minute to open or save. By comparison, Apple’s Authoring Studio stores pointers to your original files, so its documents are extremely small. Like its panorama-making cousin, VR ObjectWorx is nearly identical to its earlier incarnation – Widgetizer – but adds Mac OS 8.5 interface tweaks and support for URL hot spots. It also shares Widgetizer’s biggest shortcomings: no cropping features and the inability to import conventional QuickTime movies. Although QuickTime VR lets you store multiple movies in a single disk file, with hot spots enabling users to jump from one node to another, Nodester and VR PanoWorx are limited to creating VR movies containing just one node. Enter VR SceneWorx, the only stand-alone program for creating multiple-node VR movies. Boasting features that even QuickTime VR Authoring Studio lacks, VR SceneWorx lets you import existing content – single-node panoramas, object movies, conventional movies, and still images – and link it using hot spots. VR SceneWorx shares its siblings’ tabbed-interface design but, unlike the others, supports Mac OS 8.5 Open and Save dialogue boxes. You can import a background image file to aid in scene design, and VR SceneWorx has a set of simple drawing tools for creating a background. After mapping out a scene, you import movies and images, position them on the background, and create hot spots to link them to each other or to Web pages. You can then export everything to a single QuickTime movie, optionally recompressing some or all of the media. A preview mode lets you test your hot spots and links. However, VR SceneWorx lacks an undo feature, and its manual – like those of its siblings – is inadequate. No-warp speed
Experienced VR producers will import a stitched panorama’s PICT file into Photoshop, retouch it, and create a new panorama. The problem is that the contents of a stitched PICT appear warped, making many retouching jobs difficult or impossible. With AdessoSoft’s PanoTouch, a plug-in for Photoshop 4 and later, you use the PanoTouch Import command to open a stitched PICT; PanoTouch unwarps the PICT and displays it as a QuickTime VR movie, complete with zoom and pan controls (see ‘Retouching with PanoTouch’). Navigate to the area of the panorama you want to retouch and click on Import, and PanoTouch extracts that portion, unwarps it, and opens it as a new image file. The PanoTouch Export command automatically replaces that portion of the original stitched PICT, which you can convert to a panorama using the authoring tool of your choice. On the downside, PanoTouch can’t import and unwarp an entire stitched PICT at once. If you need to retouch several noncontiguous areas, you have to endure the import-export routine for each. PanoTouch can’t work with partial panoramas, and the workaround (described in the excellent manual) is cumbersome.
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