Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Google Photo Sphere

The interactive image in this blog post was shot and published near Aeschiried in Switzerland using the new, free Google Photo Sphere app on my iPhone 4S. It is completely un-retouched, hence the somewhat ugly shadow in the lower part of the image.

The following is quite technical. If you’re not interested in the technical bit, just click and drag on the photo at the top of this blog post and you’ll get the idea.

I’ve been a fan of panoramic photos since even before I started taking photos with a digital camera. I wrote about it in some detail back in 2011, when I was using Hugin for stitching images together, although I switched to the simpler Panoedit software more recently and am sad to see that it is being discontinued. (I wonder why so many stitching programmes bite the dust…)

Anyway, this post isn’t about high-resolution stitching software but a solution to a different problem: posting 360° spherical images on the web. Software like Quicktime VR (Virtual Reality) has always been a great solution, but one which needs the viewer to install a browser plugin. Adobe Flash is the same, and with the advent in 2010 of the iPad and iPhone, which don’t allow Flash to be installed (for reasons I won’t go into here), it makes much more sense to use the native HTML5 functionality in the most modern browsers.

Once the browsing public moves on from outdated web browsers, we can use simple technology and standardized HTML5 code to embed wrap-around views directly in the browser, without the visitor having to install anything with which to view them. That being said, solutions like Pannellum, which my friend Habi recommended, seem to be pretty good… assuming that visitors aren’t using older browsers. As there are a good many who still are, I’d put plans to try out Pannellum and similar solutions on the back burner.

Until I saw that Google released a new smartphone app called Photo Sphere.

This new app, released in August for Android and iPhone, allows the photographer to create immersive 360° spherical images – including the ability to tilt the image up and down, not just side-to-side – directly on the device, and publish them to a new portion of the Google service called Google Views.

Google Views is to be an indirect replacement for Panoramio: a photo sharing service with an emphasis on geographic location which Google acquired in 2007. Panoramio has been rebranded recently and according to press reports, Google is planning to close it down altogether in favour of its own Views service.

Once photographed and rendered – which takes around two minutes on my hesitant iPhone 4S – an interactive image from the app can be published to the photographer’s Google Maps account. (Mine is here; confusingly neither in Google Plus nor in my public Google profile, but in a new location altogether.)

This means that an interactive image may be published and promoted more widely in Google View, so that people searching for interactive images there will be more likely to come across individual photographers’ images. This is hugely powerful for Google, as it will mobilize the photographing public to cover a wider range of locations than is currently feasible using Google’s own Street View team.

In preparing this post, I found out that the developers have also enabled a suitable addition to their API and so it’s comparatively easy for a web developer to embed an interactive image on a website using the Google Maps Javascript API. (Puzzlingly, their guide was last updated in 2013, before the app was available.) The only minor difficulty is that the developer has to find the panoID manually, instead of pulling it from the Google URL. If the developer is really lazy, then there’s also an easy option to embed it via iframe through the sharing options on the Google Maps view.

As to creating and sharing 360° interactive images created using other software in Google View: this appears to have possible since 2013, as described here under the heading “Bloggers, Developers, & Photographers”.