VR Photography Software

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I’ve fully entered into the foray of VR 360 photography. I’ve been shooting on my Pixel 4a5g, using the photosphere feature to stitch photos together. This method, despite it being an inbuilt feature of my phone, proved very effective. During the lockdown, I managed to get some fantastic photos of places that, ordinarily, would be full of people. Places like museums, galleries, parks and streets. It really was a unique time. My favourite shots came from the Victoria and Albert Design museum.



Using my phone, although effective, took time and precision. I have to stand very still whilst the phone maps a 360 environment onto my phone using rectangles. Each rectangle would be blank until I lined my phone up with the middle of the rectangle when it would then automatically expose and shoot. The automatic exposure was great because it meant that I could have super bright parts of the image and really dark areas and they would both be correctly exposed. Although it did require a few minutes of standing around turning in the spot to capture an entire scene, not good if you’re trying to be discreet!

Using my phone, although effective, took time and precision. I have to stand very still whilst the phone maps a 360 environment onto my phone using rectangles. Each rectangle would be blank until I lined my phone up with the middle of the rectangle when it would then automatically expose and shoot. The automatic exposure was great because it meant that I could have super bright parts of the image and really dark areas and they would both be correctly exposed. Although it did require a few minutes of standing around turning in the spot to capture an entire scene, not good if you’re trying to be discreet!

So in January, I did a fair amount of research and bought the Theta Z1. Theta’s flagship 360 camera model. Usually just shy of £1,000 when bought new, I managed to get mine for less than half of that. It was an ex-display model and has a very tiny paint chip in the body, but nothing that affects its usage. I couldn’t be happier with it. I’ll write more about my experiences with the theta z1 at a later date.

The aim of getting this camera is to make virtual tours. After being inspired by Google arts during the lockdown and seeing some of the amazing things they’ve created which allow people to experience the world from their homes, I knew I wanted to get in on the action. I want to be able to create tours, tell stories and document buildings and places for future generations.

Now I’ve got the camera, I already know how to edit photos (although 360 photo editing requires a slightly different workflow), all I need now is to pick the right software that will build and host my tours. Picking one is no easy task though.

Choosing software is a commitment, make no mistake about it, so it’s important that you understand exactly what you’re paying for before committing. If you’re 12 months into using a tour software and then decide to cancel your subscription, you’re in real danger of losing all the tours you’ve created and having to rebuild them with the new software that you’ve chosen. This is perhaps the biggest dilemma.

Let’s look at 5 different tour providers, the pros and cons of each and then my recommendation at the end of the article.

  • Matterport
  • Panolens
  • Metareal
  • KR Pano
  • Seekbeak

Matterport

Matterport has earned a reputation for being an industry leader in dollhouse creations. Their patented software will render a 3d space that you can view from outside of the space itself. Imagine a photorealistic dollhouse without a roof. You can see all the floors, the furniture, the walls etc, but can walk around the outside, get closer to or further away from, this is one of the big advantages Matterport has over its competitors. The ease of use and collaboration make it a very popular choice amongst 360 photo enthusiasts and professionals. Matterport allows for a wide range of compatible 360 cameras to be used and can even use iPhones to create a 360 space (providing you use their app). The prices start at $0.00 a month for one hosted tour but rise to $69 a month for the professional plan and $309 per month for the business plan. The free option is great if you want to see what features it has and if it’s the right platform for you.
The measurement feature is a really handy tool that really shines in the real estate industry, especially where measurements and floorplans are paramount.
Matterport is great if you’re already into the 360 tour business and are looking to add a professional touch with the dollhouse and the measurement feature can be invaluable. Downsides include a lack of customisation for hotspots, whilst you can embed images, videos and audio, they all need to be attached to a preset hotspot and clicked. This might not be a problem for some, but for those that want a more customised experience, there may be better options.

ProsCons
Has a free membership optionCan get expensive if using it for a hobby
Creates photorealistic dollhousesLack of customisable hotspots
Measures accuratelyRequires two tours if there’s an external property such as a garage
Industry leader with great support
Tours can be made with a phone or tablet

Panolens

Okay, so panolens is less of a software and more of a javascript library used for spherical photos and to create tours. This obviously requires you to know some simple coding in order to build the tours in the first place but in return offers you much greater flexibility once you’ve learned the basics. Panolens is built with coders in mind and probably wouldn’t be suitable if you’re planning on doing many tours with many clients. Panolens relies on the three.js framework to work fully, both scripts can be downloaded easily from the panolens website. Being able to add interactive elements to each picture allows for a more immersive storytelling experience, encouraging the user to fully engage with the project rather than being a passive observer, something that can be very powerful if used correctly. In my opinion, the best thing about panolens is that it’s free. Once you’ve downloaded the scripts, you can create, edit and host your tour wherever you want. There are no monthly fees, no fear of your tours being delisted if you decide to swap providers and you have full control over where it’s hosted and by who.

Whilst there are many examples on panolenses website that showcase the possibilities of Panolens, it’s hard to find real use cases to see what people have made out there in the field. The photos don’t seem to render in very high quality and there seems to be a lack of support when it comes to newcomers. It’s hard to find good youtube tutorials (although they do exist) and it’s a really steep learning curve. If you don’t code, then this one isn’t for you.

ProsCons
Free for lifeRequires knowledge of Javascript
Can be hosted anywhereLack of support and user community
Very customisable
Open-source software

Metareal

Metareals big selling point is that they offer to build the tours for you. That’s right, you upload your photos, edited or not, and they do the rest of the hard work for you. Great if you’re not computer savvy or simply don’t have time. This can be very useful if you want to spend the time you would have spent making the tours, growing your business instead. One of my favourite features of this tour provider is the smooth animation from one frame to the next, almost as though you’re walking through. It really adds a professional touch to the tour. Marketed towards people who want fast tours without much context or information. Metareal is much cheaper than its competitors but you can also see why. I think the reason for the low cost of the plans is that if you want someone to build the tour for you, it’s extra. This extra charge enables them to lower the price of the main service.

At this price, you wouldn’t expect a dollhouse feature, but Metareal really delivers. The dollhouses are photorealistic and could even give Matterport a run for its money. Metareal is a decent buy with a free account available and the most expensive account $39 per month, it should be in the price range of most people. But it’s worth noting that whilst it does have the dollhouse feature, it lacks any other kind of feature that you’d expect to see in 360 tour software.

ProsCons
Metareal will build the tour for youLack of hotspots
Pretty cheap compared to its competitorsAlmost no customisation
Dollhouse feature is pretty goodLacks professionalism seen in other tours
Very easy to use
Good for beginners


KR Pano

A real heavyweight. KR Pano occupies a space in between coding and software. Whilst the licences give you everything you need to get yourself up and running, there are many add ons that you’ll soon want, which all come with their own prices attached to them. But this is what gives KR Pano its strength. The user base that’s constantly growing is always contributing new plugins for KR Pano and therefore functionality is limited to only what your imagination can offer. Whilst KR Pano could be seen as the ultimate solution to everything 360 VR tour related, you have to ask yourself if you have the skills and expertise to fully master this software. If you don’t have experience in coding or building tours, maybe this isn’t the one for you, but if you do, and you’re willing to part with $159 for the basic licence, then I’d recommend it. They have a great forum that is in constant use, has great support and are constantly updating. Whatsmore, because it’s open-source, the amount of add ons one can get for it is ever-expanding. They’ve just added 3d depth maps, meaning dollhouses and even walkthroughs (using directional arrows to walk through like a game character rather than clicking into the next area) are now a reality. It really feels like this is where 360 tours are going but, and I must stress, it’s for people who are really tech-savvy, and for those that are, the learning curve is steep.

ProsCons
One-off licence feeReally steep learning curve
Great forum and support
Open-source
User-contributed plugins

SeekBeak

SeekBeek is something I came across when asking for advice for my 360 photography in one of the Facebook groups I’m a part of, and I’m so happy I did. The creator and owner of SeekBeak are really engaged with his community and answers most questions personally. The community is small, but growing and the support is second to none. SeekBeak itself took me totally by surprise. The ease of use, the customisation and the low price were all huge positive factors for me. I’ve used the two-week free tour available and have got some of the best results of any tour provider I’ve used. It offers polygon hotspot shapes, meaning you can create a layer over a part of the image which when clicked, will open up a variety of different things, for interaction and storytelling, this wins hands down.

Whilst not a giant like Matterport, SeekBeak offers unrivalled support. The tour creator is in-browser and all photos get stored on SeekBeaks servers, allowing for quick loading times and ease of mind because you know everything is going to be backed up. For a personal account, you can expect to pay $14 per month which gets you unlimited tours and photo uploads and for a business account, the price rises to $49 per month. Little added features like a QR code generator and shortcode make this tour provider perfect for use with clients as it’s so easy to share.

ProsCons
Great supportNONE!
Simple to use
Good price
Highly customisable


Summary

There are many more 360 tour providers out there and I’ve only gone through 5, but I hoped to have offered a range of different tours for different suitabilities. Panolens is a great lightweight system that requires some Javascript knowledge to get to work, whilst Matterport is a real heavy hitter which comes with the prestige of the name and along with it, a hefty price tag. Depending on what you want, will ultimately depend on what you choose to use.

My two recommendations are SeekBeak and KR Pano. KR Pano is truly the ultimate when it comes to customisation and with an absolute army of geeks adding functionality to it, there’s nothing it can’t do. However, if you’re looking for a smooth experience where everything is hosted for you and the interface is easy and streamlined, you can’t beat SeekBeak.

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