Demystification of the 360° panorama pictures

Screenshot of a Virtual Tour to showcase a property in 360°
Screenshot of a Virtual Tour to showcase a property in 360°

25 years already!

It has been now more than 7 years since we have (re)discovered the Panoramic Picture potential and its natural extension, the “360° Virtual Tour”.
I said ‘rediscovered’ as the few first attempts for Panoramic Pictures creations were shily presented between 1991 and 1995 by Apple and their Quicktime VR picture format.
So, it’s been more than 25 years this process of stitching many pictures to recreate a virtual reality in a computer has been presented, and yet no one can really tell it has been successfully embraced by the real estate professionals, which would naturally be the first users for this technology.

So why this reluctance to this technology or why this kind of rich media isn’t as popular as it should be? After all, we live in a 360° world. Everything that surrounds us is in 3D and 360°, so it would have been more than natural to shift from 2D narrow pictures and videos to a more realistic 3D 360° content.

In this series of articles (this is the first one), I’m going to present the main reasons of this situation, and why the real estate professionals (anyone actually) should reconsider to use this way of showcasing real estate properties and much more.

Capturing 360° panoramas

The 360° pictures capture is still (wrongly) considered a domain dedicated to professional photographers

To make 360° virtual tours, we obviously need a 360° content. And, this is the first scarecrow that keeps away the realtors from Virtual Tours. Most of them still think:

“Virtual Tours are interesting but I don’t have a 360° camera and I don’t want to buy such expensive equipment.”

“Capturing 360 panoramas is too long. Taking several hours to photo shoot a place is not viable for my business.”

A few years ago, the capture process, the equipment needed, the skills required, not to mention the price tag to be able to create those 360° content, have been surely the main factor of the very slow adoption of this new rich media format. I am going to demonstrate the assumption is not true anymore.

There is also another myth in that technology.
Most of the people believe a Virtual Tour can only be made with “360° full sphere panoramas”. Actually, I’m going to show you it is totally possible to create a virtual tour with a “panoramic picture”, which is not a traditional 360° full sphere panorama.

By convention in this article, we will name “360° panorama” and “panoramic picture” as follow:

 
Panoramic picture captured with Google Cardboard camera (no equipment, no accessory required)
Panoramic picture captured with Google Cardboard camera (no equipment, no accessory required)
 
360° x 180° (full sphere) panorama, captured with a consumer-grade 360° camera
360° x 180° (full sphere) panorama, captured with a consumer-grade 360° camera

Take a look at the 2 URLs above, and you will quickly understand what makes those 2 “panoramas” different.

The 360° panorama is giving this feeling of real immersive experience with a 360° x 180° field of view. You, as the visitor of the scene, are at the center of a 360° environment, and you can view it like you would do it in real-life with your eyes.

The panoramic picture, however, gives the user a sense of 360° field of view, but without the ability to pan up and down, making the vision narrower.

But let’s be honest, unless the ceiling and the floor are really important to you (which could be, depends on the purpose of the project), even a simple panoramic picture captured with a smartphone allows you to create a decent virtual tour. Of course, you won’t have the “Wow” effect of the full sphere panoramas, but you can capture an entire property with this simple workflow and have a virtual tour without investing immediately in an expensive 360° camera.

The second weakness of the panoramic picture is that they use the regular lens of the smartphone. Therefore, if you want to capture a panoramic picture in a small room, due to this limitation, you will only capture a narrow-angle of the room, which will be a bit too small to make the visitor able to discover the room properly.
Note: I call “small room” a room like <7m2 (like 2.5m x 2.5m).

So, is it still difficult to capture and 360° content? Should we still have to rely exclusively on professional photographers? No, and I’m going to present now the different existing solutions to create simply 360° content for the real estate virtual tours.
Note: This article focuses on the solutions that cope with the real estate professionals’ constraints. We are not reviewing here the professionals’ solutions dedicated to a few high-end projects which represent only <2% of the real estate market and which require very expensive equipment and a lot of time and effort to produce such virtual tours.


Google cardboard camera

 
Google Cardboard camera — screenshot
Google Cardboard camera — screenshot
 
How to capture a panoramic picture with your smartphone and Google Cardboard camera

Google cardboard camera app is free and available on both android and iOS app market. This app is better than the “pano” mode of the smartphone camera (see next chapter) as it can stitch both edges of the picture to make a seamless panoramic picture.
The process to capture a panoramic picture is very straightforward and the only skill required is to keep steady and to spin smoothly while capturing. If you respect those 2 conditions, the result is really decent and can be used fairly for many real estate virtual tours where the high resolution and full-sphere panorama are not needed (low price property, commercial place or office, construction survey, …).

 
    • Installation time: none
    • Capture time: 1 min per panoramic picture
    • Skill: no skill required
    • Learning curve: very fast
    • Size for one panorama: from 3 to 15 MBytes depends on the smartphone and each panorama compression
    • Price of the kit: free (no hardware needed)

The “pano” or ”panorama” camera mode on your smartphone

 
Pano mode on iPhone X — exists also on android phones
Pano mode on iPhone X — exists also on android phones

This is the second option that doesn’t require any equipment nor accessory to capture a panoramic picture with a simple smartphone. The process is very similar but the rendering is not stitched. In other words, the panoramic picture you will get will have an obvious border between the left and right edge of the pano itself. This “pano” mode is also not present on all the smartphone so we strongly recommend you use the Google Cardboard camera.

  • Installation time: none
  • Capture time: 1 to 2min per panoramic picture
  • Skill: no skill required
  • Learning curve: very fast
  • Size for one panorama: from 3 to 15 MBytes depends on the smartphone and each panorama compression
  • Price of the kit: free (no hardware needed
Note: it exists for some smartphones a 360° panorama” mode on the camera. We don’t mention it here for a few reasons:
  • This mode equipped only a small number of smartphones and tend to even be removed from the new software releases
  • The capture process is complex to use and requires several minutes to capture the entire panorama
  • The panorama captured is often very disappointing, with many problems of stitching and pictures alignment

The rotator and clipped lens over your smartphone

 
Rotator kit with clipped lens and mini tripod
Rotator kit with clipped lens and mini tripod

This hardware solution has become popular for the last 2/3 years with low success. The initial idea is to use simple and not expensive equipment to make the users capable of capturing 360° panoramas with their smartphones.
The hardware solution is composed of 3 elements:

  • The rotator, which can be described as a small device where the smartphone will be plugged on
  • The clipped lens, which is a wide-angle lens adaptor to be clipped on the smartphone camera
  • The tripod to put on a table or on the floor (see below the weakness of this part)

The software setup is composed of 2 elements:

  • The Bluetooth connection that will control the rotator
  • The software that will control the rotator to capture the 360° panorama

This solution, which seems to be handy at first, is actually very complex and not friendly/efficient for a busy real estate agent.
The process itself is quite long and requires several steps:

  • Install the smartphone on the rotator. The position of the smartphone is important otherwise the panorama will be distorted. the smartphone must be plug inside the rotator so it means you need to remove any case that will block this operation
  • Plug, with care, the clipped lens on the smartphone. This operation is also tricky as if you don’t install it properly the capture cannot be done properly
  • You need to find a place (a table, or furniture), where you can put the rotator on with its small tripod. As the good 360° panorama needs to be captured at eye level, you need very often to get rid of the mini tripod and install the rotator on a more conventional tripod (additional equipment to carry with you)
  • Then, you need to use the mobile app and follow a few steps before the capture itself will start.
  • The capture process itself depends on the few companies who are using this equipment, but usually, a minimum of 8 pictures will be taken
  • Then, will follow a stitching process on the smartphone that will finally generate the 360° panorama
  • The last step is to upload the 360° panorama to the editor cloud website via the mobile app

This operation has to be done every time you want to take a panorama, so let’s say, at least 1 per room or more.
As you can see in the process workflow, this inexpensive hardware kit (<50USD) brings more constraints than help to capture 360° panoramas. This is why we can say this solution is not suitable for realtors who need to run all day long and don’t have much time to capture many panoramas for each property.

  • Installation time: around 5 min before the first capture
  • Capture time: 1 to 2min per panoramic picture
  • Skill: need some time to use it properly
  • Learning curve: medium
  • Size for one panorama: from 3 to 15 MBytes depends on the smartphone and each panorama compression
  • Price of the kit: around 50 US$

The Consumer-grade 360° cameras

 
few examples of consumer-grade 360° cameras
few examples of consumer-grade 360° cameras
How to capture a 360° panorama with a consumer-grade camera

The consumer-grade 360° cameras have improved a lot in the last few years. They are now affordable, easy to use, and the quality of the panoramas captured is good enough to be used for virtual tours.

The main advantage of this kind of camera is they can capture a 360° panorama in one shot, thanks to their special lenses composed most of the time with 2 very wide-angle lenses (fisheye lens). Each time you use the camera, 2 pictures are captured and the firmware of the camera will stitch them together.

The process to use such a camera is simple:

  • Install the camera on a mini light-weight tripod and set the camera at the eye-level
  • Setup the timer on the camera or use your smartphone to remote control the camera
  • leave the room and trigger the capture with your smartphone or let the timer ends

The capture is usually stored in the camera’s memory (internal or external memory card) and can be downloaded on the smartphone or connected on a computer.

As you can see, this solution gives a swift and easy semi-professional 360° panoramas capture. It is small and light-weight to be brought everywhere. It’s easy to use to capture an entire property within a few minutes.

  • Installation time: 1 min before the first capture
  • Capture time: <5s per panorama
    Skill: need to learn the basic of using a simple electronic device (On, Off, mode, wifi connection)
    Learning curve: low to medium
  • Size for one panorama: from 3 to 15 MBytes depends on the smartphone and each panorama compression
  • Price of the kit: from 45 to 1500 US$

 
Comparison of the different solutions to capture a panorama for a virtual tour
Comparison of the different solutions to capture a panorama for a virtual tour

Conclusion

It’s now time for the real estate professionals to use the technology really dedicated to their industry. Yes, a virtual tour is not something dedicated to professional photographers anymore, and even more, it’s now a technology mature and affordable for all the real estate professionals.
In this article, we have reviewed the affordable and easy to use solutions to capture quickly entire properties with either a simple smartphone or a simple consumer-grade 360° camera.

Now we can capture 360° panoramas, I will present in the next article the different solutions to create and edit easily and simply nice and professionals virtual tours.