Creating photo spheres

Posted on Dec 12, 2013 in Technology

Photo spheres (those 360 degree pan-around images) are hardly new. They have been around for a while, especially on real estate sites, and on Google Street View. Smartphones have had ways to create photo spheres too, either in their native camera app like on Android or through a number of iOS apps on iPhone, but they have always been a bit hit and miss. A new iPhone gadget tries to improve upon those apps by automating the process. The Motrr Galileo is a battery powered, Bluetooth “robotic motion control” dock for iPod touch, iPhone 4/4S and 5/5s. It allows for a continuous 360 degree pan and tilt rotation, and can be mounted on a standard tripod. In addition to spherical panoramas, it can also be used for time-lapse photography, home monitoring and 360 degree video calling! But I’ll only cover the photo sphere function in this post.

Priced at $150 US, it’s a very neatly designed product. It feels solid, in its soft rubbery plastic. It comes in black or in white versions. Paring the Bluetooth function is done by opening any of the supporting apps and twisting the bottom, really easy*. The bottom also displays a battery level, which lights up when twisting the bottom. The top part fans open when the iPhone is in place and allows for the full 360 degree pan and tilt. (*except when it doesn’t react to your twist, see troubleshooting later)

Currently, Motrr only provides a single app, which links to other, Galileo supporting third party apps, as well as allowing you to update the Galileo’s firmware and test its Bluetooth connection. To create photo spheres, you use a free third party app called, Sphere! You can use Sphere also without the Galileo device, but as I said before, your spherical image will be very hit and miss (mostly miss for me).
The Sphere app does an OK job of creating spheres, but anything closer than 1 meter may stitch badly. It also doesn’t handle moving objects very well (people walking by, cars, boats). And sometimes the white balance is very much off. I’ve used better stitching apps before. It also always tries to upload your spherical image to their online, hosted service, though you may not always want to do that (also because the images are 4MB to 6MB large). Maybe you want to edit it first (change white balance), or combine different parts from different recordings (to remove people).
Once it’s uploaded, people can visit your sphere and scroll around the sphere. You can also embed spheres into your own site (like the one above).

Creating a sphere takes about 2:10 minutes (on iPhone 5s, 75 seconds for capture, the rest for stitching)! See for yourself:

From my experience, you can expect to take about 25 spheres on your iPhone, until the battery of your phone runs out. I guess this has to do with driving the Galileo through Bluetooth, having the GPS enabled, stitching the images together, and uploading the images over 3/4G. The Galileo itself was still going strong (though its battery indicator was “orange” too.)

But it doesn’t have to stop there! The Sphere app will also save the 18MP spherical image onto your camera roll. One like this (but in 18MP size):
Sphere
And you can use that one elsewhere, for example add it to Google Maps’ Views, where you can create your own “Street View”, linking different photo spheres together. This does involve a number of additional steps:

And then hope Google publishes them to Google Maps for people to visit:

View Larger Map

Ultimately, the Motrr Galileo is only as good as the software supporting it. There also the chicken/egg situation. Developers need to be incentivised to add Galileo support, and customers will only buy Galileo if it has great apps supporting it. The hardware is great, the software has plenty of room to improve upon (Sphere tends to crash quite a bit).

When you happen to hit a snag with your Galileo, when the Galileo becomes unresponsive to you twisting the bottom and no longer wants to connect to Bluetooth, you can do a reset of the device following these instructions on the Motrr site. (but maybe on a hardware revision they could just include a small pin hole to reset…)

1 Comment

  1. Eric
    June 27, 2014

    Hi

    And thank you for this clear article, very helpful

    Would it be possible to dispose a few examples of photosphere taken with galileo in original format to test the compatibily with my viewer and before I buy it ?

    Thank you
    Eric

    Reply

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