Navigable 360° Panoramas: A Love Story

For my Master Thesis, I have spent the past few months developing an immersive navigable panorama viewer for Google Cardboard. Now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my project, why I love it so much and why it might change how you view the world.

Google Cardboard

First, let me tell you a bit about what I have been doing at CodeFlügel over the past months. I’ll tell you my love story, and how it all began. Have you heard about Google Cardboard? Of course you have – if you are following our blog. The idea of Google presenting a piece of cardboard that could transform your smartphone into a virtual reality headset basically blew my mind. I will not even try to tell you that this VR headset can compete with the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. I know these two devices very well and it can’t, but that was not what came into my mind when I heard about this device for the first time. I was thinking of bringing sophisticated technology to kids in development countries, to economical and war refugees, to patients caught up in hospital beds, to EVERYONE! And from that moment on, I wanted to get my hands on that thing and code something for it.

I am doing a Master in IT Security, but I have to admit I can get distracted rather easily. So I jumped from downloading some funny confidential files from NASA in my hacking class, to becoming obsessed with the Google Cardboard in the blink of an eye. Luckily for me, while I was looking for a topic for my Master Thesis, I realized I knew just the right guys for it. I put myself in contact with CodeFlügel and it didn’t take us more than 15 minutes to know we were a perfect fit. A couple of weeks later I came into an office full of geek toys and smiley people, and started work on my project.

What are the big guys doing?

Our field of research brings together the latest findings and development in panoramic photography and virtual reality. This is especially interesting at a moment in time when these technologies are experiencing a great hype, presumably provoked by great economical investment on research and development and a tremendous competition between providers. I bet you guys have seen 360o photos and videos dancing around on Facebook. Also Disney is making panoramic trailers of their movies and even Netflix presented a 360o trailer of their new hit “Stranger Things”. So yes, we suspect this will get even more mainstream in the months to come.

How good are you at reading maps?

Because there are those who are pretty good, and those who just seem unable to work it out. Here’s a nice article for some light reading on that topic. But, hey – let’s get back to my project now! We know that maps and two-dimensional plans in general do not work for everybody. They especially lack a lot of information about the real world; information that our brains find useful to determine if we like a place or not, or if it’s even worth storing in our memory. So we thought about replacing 2D maps with panoramic photography, using 360o  pictures to create virtual tours.

Let’s recap: in the past decade, virtual tours have been popularized. Nevertheless, these are usually either poor in detail or they require excessively expensive development of 3D models. Currently Virtual Tours can be mostly divided into two categories. First, we have video walkthroughs with which the user has no power of interaction and which thus aren’t exactly very memorable. And then, we have 3D interactive tours, which often achieve an exact reproduction of the physical construction and provide higher visual data retention. However, they normally require a significant investment of both time and money. So this is how the idea of creating virtual tours with immersive-navigable-panoramas, came to our team’s mind.

How we made the magic happen

We decided to implement an app that lets the user place his phone inside the Google Cardboard to explore the Merkur Arena Stadium in Graz, Austria. We are still doing research on Human Computer Interaction (HCI) to provide the best user experience possible. Our App is fully controlled by head movements and there is no need for external controllers, gamepads or cables. As a user, you will appear in the middle of the football field and you will see the connection points (represented by numbered spheres) of all the locations available. By staring at one of the connection points, it will animate and you will be teleported to that location.

So, who knows, maybe you’ll soon be able to choose a seat in any stadium, theater or opera house this way. And you’ll experience the view from your seat, while actually sitting on your sofa – just like magic!