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360-degree photos on your Web site: the revolutionary BeHere camera.

With a single snap of the shutter, this incredible new technology captures a surrounding, high-resolution image

For ages, the quest to artificially capture a 360-degree sense of reality has fascinated as many pictorialists as it has frustrated. Enveloping panoramas were first constructed by painters as early as the 18th century, with viewers obliged to turn in a circle to view all 360 degrees, as they would in viewing an actual scene.

Photographers later followed painters in producing surrounding views, but it was a cumbersome process. Some pivoted a standard camera around a tripod, and then painstakingly patched the resulting prints into a continuous strip. Others devised motorized cameras that turned as they exposed the film, but even these were mostly limited to covering 150 degrees.

The advent of computers finally made it possible to complete the full 360-degree turn by scrolling--the separate movements of film and camera being precisely synchronized by computer control systems.

And now, the latest computerized breakthrough has made the 360-degree instant panoramic photograph possible. No moving the film. No moving the camera. Just point the special lens, snap the shutter and instantly capture a 360-degree picture of all that you see around you.

Of course, the $10,000 "lens," which resembles a high-tech lamp shade, is a little weird, but it produces amazing visual results that are called "PanImages" and can be used on Web sites to provide 360-degree views of any scene. The concept for the curved-mirrors-and-optics system came from Ted Driscoll, who had previously designed fingerprint-capture cameras.

Parabolic Mirror Lens

Made by BeHere, a Los Gatos, Calif., company, the lens is essentially a miniature version of the highly-polished parabolic mirror lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. Its curved surface collects a distorted but complete image of 360 degrees of surrounding landscape. A smaller curved precision mirror then bounces or "folds" this donut-shaped image back onto the focal plane of a standard Nikon camera body to be recorded on a single frame in film or digital format.

Although wildly distorted, the high-density donut image contains all the detail of the landscape it reflected and recorded--just like the space images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. And like those distorted space images, the images of the BeHere camera are then processed by special image-manipulating software that "decodes," or undistorts them, restoring normal spacial relationships and perspectives. The end result is a true, high-resolution 360-degree PanImage, or surrounding photograph of the scene.

The image can be laid out as a long strip for printing on paper, or its digital form can be used in an endless, circular form as a Web site graphic. To view, or rather experience, the Web site PanImages, viewers need Apple QuickTime VR, RealSpace's RealVR or other virtual reality plug-ins which are quick (and free) to download. Web site viewers of PanImages use their cursor to move right or left around the entire 360-degree view in any direction--as if they were actually standing in the middle of the scene. It is this visual sense of actually "being there" that inspired the new photographic company's name, "BeHere." In addition, while viewing the surrounding scene, users can also zoom in for a closer look at any part of the photo.

However, even when PanImages are used at low resolution on a Web site, they are large Fries that require substantial downloading time. A sample 360 image of an urban park on the BeHere Web site was 340K and took three minutes to download on a Macintosh 1400c at 33.6 baud in off-peak hours. The same file took five minutes and twenty seconds to download on a non-PowerPC Macintosh at 33.6 in off-peak hours.

Something Beyond Reality

Photographically, the 360-degree view offers something beyond mere reality. It freezes a moment in time that we can't see in actuality, something akin to slow motion photography where we speed up a movie camera and slow down the projector to examine action that normally occurs so fast we can't decipher all the details.

Introduced just nine months ago at Mac World, the BeHere S1 has been used to create documentary 360-degree Web-sites images of such news events as the Inaugural of President Clinton, vistas of total devastation caused by tornadoes in Arkansas, and the Indianapolis 500. It has also been used to produce a spacious, "unrolled" view of the cramped interior of the NASA Space Station. Earlier this year, Builder magazine's Web site mounted a PanImage version of its "New American Home '97" trade show in Houston featuring expansive panoramic shots of rooms and spaces around the vast show floor.

The New York-headquartered Audio-Visual Department of the Associated Press began using the peculiar lens system almost immediately after it became available in January. In fact, ten of the 11 panoramas on the Associated Press' consumer Internet site, The Wire, were made with BeHere equipment. Portions of these panoramas have also found their way into print newspapers through AP's PhotoStream service.

Curiously, B. Mark Hilton, vice president of BeHere, said neither the news media nor Web sites were the original target markets for the BeHere lens. "We didn't think they would be as interested as they are," he said of photo journalists.

Originally, retail establishments and trade shows were expected to be markets, he said. "We would like to get the price down close to consumer level," he added. Besides sales and leases, he anticipated a network of franchised service providers who could make panoramas for you with the BeHere system.

Mac or PC

The lens and software that make up the current 35mm BeHere system are being sold as the Portal S1 Imaging System. S1 software is available for either Macs or PCs. System requirements are PowerPC with MacOS 7.5 (or greater) or Windows 95/NT with 32MB RAM minimum and 64MB preferred.

The current S1 version fits on Nikon 35mm SLR cameras. The company has also designed a panoramic lens for Hasselblad cameras that is expected to go into production later this year.

The lens units weigh less than 10 pounds, but they are not designed for handheld pictures. "What you see through the viewfinder is pretty distorted," explained senior BeHere engineer, Curtis Lomax. "The photographer has to get under the lens to avoid getting in the picture, and when it's mounted on a tripod you can't see the viewfinder. You compose by looking in the parabolic mirror," he explained.

The lenses have four aperture settings, F11, 16, 20 and 28, Lomax said, but he only recommends F20, which gives maximum picture quality. You can use any shutter speed that gives you the right exposure, determined by aperture-priority auto exposure or a handheld meter. And the lenses are all fixed focus.

The film image on negative or positive (chrome) film has to be scanned into a digital image to process the distorted initial image through BeHere's image conversion software. Those who don't have their own high-end digital cameras or desktop scanners can have the film image put on a Kodak Photo CD.

AP Field Techniques

Captured on a digital camera, BeHere images are relatively easy to handle, even on location, with a portable computer. Luke Sheridan, a multi-media specialist at The Wire, said a panorama of a race car garage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indianapolis 500 started out as 8.7MB, was reduced to 4.7MB and compressed to 480K for transmission. He estimated it would take about two minutes to download over a phone modem from The Wife's Web site.

Dan Patton, who is in charge of business development for BeHere, said the company filed "a very broad-based patent application" last year on the lens and the decoding system.

Robert J. Salgado is a former staff member of several Philadelphia, Pa.-area daily newspapers. A freelance writer and photographer, he lives in New Hope, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
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Title Journal of the Online News Industry
Author:Salgado, Robert J.
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Sep 20, 1997
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