Something unusual

When an opportunity comes along to look into something outside of our usual interests, we took up the challenge with excitement. Our client needed a way of getting 360 degree images into their systems, but needed a unique solution to do so. They had strict criteria around the use of images and we had to come up with a way of capturing the images and getting them in. They needed accurate images so they can work out what is needed to take the survey ready for various works.

The purpose of this experiment was to capture images of a specific location to give consumers the ability to see what is facing the location. Google Street View was fine, but the images can be unpredictable and out of date, therefore another solution is required.

Unusual proof of concept

We had to solve a number of problems as well as keeping the quality of the images to an acceptable level. This needed a fusion of our traditional technology and software skills, but also we had to now work out how to fabricate a vehicle mounting.

We set about the task by searching the market for a 360 degree camera. Plenty were available, mostly very expensive systems that required large software systems to create the images. They were good, no doubt about that. But the images they produced were either far too large to work with or create proprietary files, readable only by expensive software.

We needed something that could meet the client’s requirements. After evaluating a number of options, we discovered a way of adapting a Digital SLR camera lens. A parabolic mirror fitted to any DSLR lens meant an image could be taken by pointing the camera upwards. The other benefit is the image created will be compatible with the client’s policies, seeing as it is a standard JPG file.

Mounting and testing

The client wanted to draw up in a vehicle, and take the image of the location. The camera type was high-end Canon and Nikon, so the lenses were readily available. Since the image produced was a donut shape, some simple software on a laptop could process the image into a 360 degree viewable and zoomable image. All processing could take place in the vehicle and emailed back to the office.

For the proof of concept, we turned to some skills not necessarily linked to our normal work, that is woodwork. A box was carefully crafted to be mounted on a set of roof bars, which were then mounted to a car. An operator sitting in the back seat with a laptop had control of the camera settings, as well as zoom and focus. Upon arrival on site, the camera is tweaked and a single shot took the image. We worked out that having a higher resolution camera helped get a finer image due to the camera now operating outside it’s normal mode. When taking an image normally, there is usually about a 106 degree field of view. By making a 360 degree image, this is roughly three times, resulting in a three time reduction in image quality. Using a high-end camera with a large pixel count reduces this error, giving a fine image.

Under test, the solution performed perfectly and images were emailed back to the office in both raw (the circular image) and processed (the 360 degree image), and both performed well.

Moving into video

The concept worked well and it was taken into production with good results. The rather unorthodox roof rack required drew some attention, but it was the results that mattered. Further refinements to the roof arrangement made the system a little more aesthetically pleasing, and they are now considering moving into 360 degree videos, allowing their clients to walk through buildings, with the ability to move their perspective as they wish.

The project allowed us to move into areas we had previously not experienced in the past. It proved we can also think a little more out the box than normal and was a pleasure to succeed in what was a very interesting challenge.