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Archaeology and Technology

Panoramic Virtual Reality and Archaeology

John W. Rick and Dakin Hart

Table of Contents:


What is Panoramic Virtual Reality?

The Making of PVR

Shooting PVR Outward Panoramas

Producing the Outward Panoramas

Object Movies

Photography for Object Movies

Linking Panoramas, Stills, and Movies

Assembling Multimedia Presentations

Some Applications of PVR

As archaeologists, we often deal with an intrinsically visual subject matter in the form of landscapes, sites, and artifacts, but until recently we have been very limited in our ability to convey to others the reality of these subjects. Only in the context of slide presentations, motion pictures, or well-illustrated and expensive books have we come close to giving a palpable sense of the stuff we work on. While it is true that our physical data can hardly speak for themselves, it is also the case that a clear visual understanding of these places and objects often should precede the more intellectual pursuits of interpretation or hypothesis testing. We need to know our material well, and we need to pass this knowledge to others, be they our students, colleagues, or a broader public.

Electronic media are becoming available to serve these purposes, including digital video and photography as well as less photo-realistic technologies such as GIS (geographic information systems), CAD (computer-aided design) and associated three-dimensional modeling and rendering. With the increase in our ability to deliver visual messages comes a new challenge of how to organize the content. For example, a CD-ROM full of color stills or video clips is less accessible than either a color picture book or an analog video. One interesting option is to organize the media in such a way that they simulate reality, so that the end user can deal with the information as if it were a version of the real world--exploring, sensing, and coming to the same understandings we do during fieldwork or analysis.

We would like to discuss one particular form of such virtual reality based on panoramic photographs. Aside from our own familiarity with this technique, we want to call it to our colleagues' attention because it is one of the easiest forms of virtual reality to produce in terms of equipment and expertise, one of the easiest to deliver, and yet a quite effective means of conveying reality.

What is Panoramic Virtual Reality?

In essence, panoramic virtual reality (PVR) consists of a series of sequential photographs, shot either outward from a central point or inward toward a central object, which are presented so that the view of the surrounding world or the object can be controlled. These two perspectives are currently implemented through quite different techniques. Outward panoramic photographs are joined together (referred to as "stitching") to form a single continuous image, usually in the form of a cylinder or sphere. The object-oriented PVR operates more like a motion picture in that images of the object are displayed in their sequential or adjacent order, allowing the viewer to rotate the object in any direction like a ball.

These representational strategies give the sense of navigating through a scene or manipulating an object and thus have often been called "three-dimensional" (3-D). In truth, they are not truly 3-D, because the viewer is restricted to a single point from which the image is manipulated. Because a single landscape or object panorama is a very limited segment of reality, multiple panoramas are often linked together to form a semicontinuous spatial experience. The viewer can jump from one panorama, or "node," to the next, giving either the effect of traveling through space or of examining objects. In addition, still photographs or video clips can be linked to panoramas and displayed by clicking on specific points (usually called "hot spots"), allowing greater detail of subjects.

The Making of PVR

This form of virtual reality (VR) can be created using digital or conventional photography. For outward panoramas, a camera is mounted on a swiveling tripod head and shots taken at regular intervals, producing overlapping images that can be joined (Figure 1). Complicating matters somewhat, the camera must revolve specifically around its nodal point, the spot where light crosses in the lens. This keeps all objects in the panorama in alignment, avoiding problems of parallax, which would later confound the joining of the photographs. The camera must also rotate around a fixed axis--usually a horizontal plane, but not necessarily so. Any deviation from this plane of rotation will cause problems with stitching. A very wide wide-angle lens is usually important for outward panoramas, allowing broad, sightlike vision that encompasses nearby tall objects. A very wide wide-angle lens also reduces the number of photographs required to produce a single panorama.

How wide is very wide? We have found that for 35-mm photography, a lens in the 15-18 mm range is best; the lens can be fish-eye or nondistorting rectilinear. The rectilinear lens is superior in producing images more generally useful beyond the PVR arena. Lenses of this sort are available from Tamron and Tokina as well as camera manufacturers, although the latter can be quite expensive. A good if not excellent new 17-mm lens ranges around $250-350. This significant expense may be somewhat compensated by the broad utility of the lens in other circumstances; we cannot imagine doing archaeological photography without one. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of such a wide-angle lens is that it will pick up sun flare somewhere in the panorama, except at about midday. Lens hoods may help with this problem, but tend to crop the shot with an irregular edge, defeating some of the purpose of the wide-angle lens. In practice, we have found that lens flare can be fairly easily edited out of the stitched image, and it actually is desirable in many cases since it gives a sense of the sun's direction.

To further increase the angle of vision of the outward pan-oramas, shots are usually taken with the camera in vertical or portrait position. To facilitate this, and to allow the camera to be positioned at the lens's nodal point, a number of useful, if expensive ($200-600), specialized PVR tripod heads are available from companies such as Kaidan ( or Peace River Studios ( These allow the camera to be positioned and leveled independent of the tripod (Figure 2). In addition, most have click-stops that will position the camera in 8, 12, 16, 24, or other intervals for each full rotation. A 17-mm lens will take a full 360[[ordmasculine]] panorama in 12 shots in portrait position, with about 60 percent overlap between images. While it would be possible to take an eight-shot panorama, it may be more difficult to stitch, and should one shot fail or be missing, the panorama will be incomplete. Panoramas shot with "normal" wide-angle lenses of 28 mm will require 18 to 24 shots to complete. For taking large numbers of outward panoramas, such a full-featured tripod head is indispensable, increasing the speed and accuracy of the shoot.

Ambitious PVR projects will require a considerable amount of film, which makes digital photography an attractive option. Less expensive digital cameras (generally $600-1,000, still triple the cost of a film camera) suffer from relatively low resolution, small storage capacity, poor lens options, and limited control over exposure and other settings. Professional-level digital cameras are extremely expensive (generally in the $5,000-30,000 range), fall short of the resolution that film achieves, are often bulky, and require costly mass storage media or frequent uploading of images to a computer. While digital photography will soon be an excellent choice for PVR projects, the technology for it is not quite ready for reliable, economical, and practical field projects. Image resolution is perhaps the least of the problems, as quite acceptable stitched PVR images are frequently around 2,600 x 700 pixels, and many low-end digital cameras will produce resolutions of around 700 pixels on their longer dimension, which in portrait mode is the image's height. New PVR display technologies, however, will soon be increasing the usable image size, rendering low-resolution panoramas obsolete.

Conventional film, with its very high resolution, can be taken with a variety of cameras and does not require professional equipment. In fact, the use of automatic exposure and auto-focus is not advisable. A fixed focus and exposure is best, leaving scale, color, and density identical in the overlapped areas of sequential images. A motor drive or a self-winding camera is worthwhile, both to speed shooting of the multiple frames and to reduce forces exerted on the mount that might change camera position. A cable release is helpful, and a two-way flash shoe bubble level keeps the camera rotating on a horizontal plane. A strong tripod--better than the generic camera/video models--will pay off, because some designs of tripod heads will exert a strong bias on the tripod as the camera rotates, and off-plane tilting of the camera will have negative consequences.

Shooting PVR Outward Panoramas

The process of taking the pictures is relatively simple in most circumstances. The tripod is leveled, the PVR head attached, and the camera mounted. Using levels on the tripod, head, or camera flash shoe (depending on the equipment used), the camera is leveled. For locations in which multiple panoramas will be linked, it is a good idea to start the sequence of shots from a common compass direction--this will make orienting the panoramas and movement between them easier. The shots are then taken, rotating the camera a set number of degrees (30[[ordmasculine]] for a 12-shot panorama), usually in a clockwise rotation (Figure 3). If there is any chance of changing light conditions, human interference, or movement within the panorama, the shots should be taken as quickly as possible. Since most panorama files are editable, a considerable amount of image manipulation will be possible later. Tourists, dogs, power lines, trash, or signs can be eliminated (or added!) using the sophisticated tools in a good photo-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel Photo-Paint. In multinode site shoots, we have always tried to match lighting conditions between panoramas, so the user is not jarred by a shift, such as from an overcast to a clear day. We originally strive for cloudless days, so that the sky is constant. Our experience, however, is that clouds are visually rich, and the change in cloud formation or position between panoramic nodes is not noticeable for most users.

In practice, we have generally shot three 12-shot panoramas per 36-exposure roll of film, with a leading and trailing storyboard image. It is desirable that the same film be used throughout a given lighting situation, but a shift into shady or interior situations can be coupled with a change to a different film; color shifts are expectable and even desirable for these transitions. We strongly prefer to shoot slides because of their utility in other situations and their ease of sorting and ordering prior to digitizing, but color negatives can also be digitized. Labeling film and keeping a field register of the shooting process will pay off later. Film from large-scale projects can get mixed up easily, and in many panoramas there may be problems that need to be recorded: skipped or duplicated frames, lighting changes, or other factors affecting the final image.

Having two functioning cameras while shooting panoramas allows simultaneous shooting of stills for inclusion as details within a panorama. They are ideally taken under the same lighting conditions, without interrupting the orderly progression of the panoramic sequences. Overall, a crew of up to three people can be effectively employed, although care must be taken to avoid shooting the crew--they have to become accustomed to walking clockwise ahead of the PVR camera's rotation!

We have little experience with digital cameras and will not try to give a hands-on account of the digital shoot. It should be clear, however, that the primary difference is the storage media. With digital images, the photographic outcome is immediately apparent, so corrective measures can be taken in the field. The loss of digital files, however, is perhaps greater than the likelihood of damaging or losing film; backup of the shoot is therefore a requirement. All this suggests that immediate access to computers is necessary. Some sort of large-scale storage will be required, such as writeable CD-ROMs or backup tapes. To illustrate this issue, a productive day of shooting can produce about 25 panoramas of 12 images each, for a total of about 300 images. Using a fairly high-quality size of 1,000 x 1,750 pixels, each uncompressed image will require about five mb of storage space, for a total day's storage requirement of 1,500 mb. This would fill a high-capacity backup tape or about 2.5 CDs; there are both monetary issues and time costs in storing this much information. Image compression could be used or a lower resolution could be saved, but both will compromise the long-range potential of the images. Assuredly these problems will be overcome in the future, but some of the current difficulties facing an intensive production schedule should be evident.

Producing the Outward Panoramas

If you have captured your images digitally, you will be ready to form your panoramas--a savings in time and cost. If you have used film, the images first need to be digitized, for which there are a number of options. More expensive but ideal is to have your film transferred to Photo-CD, a standard in which five different image sizes are written to commercially produced CD-ROMs, each accommodating about 100 original photographs. This produces a series of high-quality, consistent images on a stable medium. The alternative is to scan images yourself using a slide scanner (these range in cost from about $700 to $1,500 or more) at an image resolution tuned to your expected panorama size. Such scanned images can be passed directly to the stitching programs, while Photo-CD images must be transformed to an acceptable format and rotated to portrait orientation. If you are scanning, you will need to decide whether you will retain images after stitching, requiring major storage media, or whether you will discard them.

The stitching process is carried out by specialized programs that meld the overlapped areas of the images, bending and blending them into a seamless image when all goes well. The usual stitch is of a cylindrical image from 360[[ordmasculine]] of photographs, but panoramas can also be made from a full sphere of images, which adds shots taken up and down, or of partial panoramas when a full 360[[ordmasculine]] coverage is not available or desired. The original software created for stitching images is Apple's Quicktime Virtual Reality (, or QTVR, a name that is sometimes applied to the whole genre. This program is now in its second major version (2.0) and offers many features, but until recently it has been restricted to the Mac environment and requires the creation of scripts written in rather opaque code. The program is expensive ($395) and employs a keyboard "dongle" as a hardware lock, which can be clumsy if you are using various machines for development. It produces a Quicktime product that can be played back or navigated by any computer running recent Quicktime software. This format is also supported by recent versions of Netscape.

As might be anticipated, a number of competitors have entered the market, with increased user friendliness. These include:

  • Nodester, by Panimation ($169), an automated, easier-to-use panorama stitcher that produces panoramas in the QTVR format (

  • PhotoVista, by LivePicture ($99), a powerful and user friendly stitcher with its own panorama format but capable of producing QTVR as well (

  • Spin Panorama by PictureWorks ($99), which produces outward panoramas. A companion program, Spin Photo Object, produces object movies (

Details on these programs can be found in a recent review of PVR software that appeared in the November 1997 issue of Macworld (accessible at The new programs are menu or button-driven, making it easy to bring together the image files, rotate them if necessary, stitch the photographs, and store the resulting image, frequently as a highly compressed JPEG file. Typical medium-resolution photos occupy about 1.5 mb apiece, but all 12 can be stitched together in a JPEG panorama of only about 200-400 kb. Viewing the panorama may require a short instruction file that is automatically created by some programs and manually assembled in others. This establishes key parameters for the panorama, such as the file name of the panoramic image, its field of view, and many optional controls for setting the initial view. The file also controls the action of the panorama, its relationship to other panoramas, and any content such as stills or movies included in the panorama.

We use PhotoVista by Live Picture on a Windows platform; here is how the stitching process proceeds in this program:

  1. The images are selected from a directory and appear in a list window; their order can be reversed here, in case they were shot in counterclockwise rotation.

  2. The lens type is selected; in my case, 17 mm.

  3. The images are displayed, side-by-side, in a viewer. If any or all were upside down or mirrored, this can be remedied with button controls (Figure 4a).

  4. A rapid preliminary stitch can be made that displays the positions in which the images will be overlapped for a final stitch. At this point, the images can be dragged to new positions if the stitching has not found their proper joining points (Figure 4b).

  5. A final stitch is performed that joins the images sequentially and displays a full-scale image. This can be examined for flaws, and one can return to the image position window for further modification and the stitch performed again.

  6. When a satisfactory panorama has been created, it can be written to disk, usually as a JPEG graphics file, along with the small control file that makes it a navigable panorama using Live Picture's Real VR program (Figure 4c).

Using a Pentium II computer, we have been able to produce two to five panoramas per hour, depending on the complexity of the exposures and on whether we scan them or use Photo-CD images. The actual stitch time will vary according to the size of the images, the processor speed, and other computer features, but on most reasonably fast machines it is not particularly lengthy--a couple of minutes at most. Panoramas with unusual lighting conditions and featureless segments are more likely to stitch improperly, but image repositioning is not difficult. Creative stitches are possible; duplicate mountains, mounds, or staircases can be made, or such features can be eliminated entirely by manually positioning the images. The JPEG image can easily be modified in a photo-editing program, such as to clean up horizons. To get an evenly colored panorama under difficult lighting conditions, such as in the underground galleries of Chavin de Huantar that are illuminated by sporadic incandescent bulbs, it may be necessary to reduce the stitched image to black-and-white and later reintroduce color with a photo-editing program.

Object Movies

Object movies are sequences of photographs manipulated to create the illusion of motion. They are, therefore, fundamentally similar to the moving pictures we are familiar with on big and little screens. The primary difference and major appeal of this fairly simple technology is that the software used to view object movies provides the user with manual control of the moving picture.

A word about the process of creating the movie from stills is necessary. The basic goal is to create a single file containing a sequence of linked images. Any software that can import images and then export a Quicktime, MPEG, or AVI file will do this (this includes Adobe Premiere, Apple's Movie Player, and other free and shareware programs). The panorama viewers are able to decode these movie files and control them frame by frame. Movement is enabled by creating a matrix of pictures following a simple formula--every row must have as many frames as the longest row. If there are 10 shots of a pot around its middle, then 10 frames of the pot from the top are also necessary, even if only one shot would have covered it (these can, of course, be copies of one image). This makes more sense if you think of the movie as a Mercator map (Figure 5); from any point in the center, one can move up and hit the North Pole. The viewer program has a similar map that records the number of rows and frames in the movie and the relationships between frames. By clicking and dragging within a viewer program, the user can scroll frame by frame in any direction for which there are stills, typically in a looping, endless sequence. Like the flip drawings in our elementary school textbook margins, this frame-by-frame scrolling creates the illusion of movement.

Photography for Object Movies

There are three important guidelines for shooting images for object movies: consistent lighting, consistent rotation, and consistent distance from the center of the object. If the lighting changes or if the background or object shifts color and/or brightness from frame to frame, the illusion of an image rotating in space disappears. The same is true for consistent rotation; irregular shifts from frame to frame--a 15[[ordmasculine]] rotation between frames 1 and 2 compared with a 30[[ordmasculine]] shift between 2 and 3--causes the eye to have trouble turning stills into a seamless rotating object. Similarly, differences in scale from frame to frame caused by variations in distance from the object create an effect more like pulsing than spinning.

Practically, these guidelines lead to fairly simple standards for shooting. If at all possible, abide by the following:

  • Move the object, not the camera (a lazy Susan or object rig marked in degrees works best).

  • Try to stay within a few degrees of error from rotation to rotation (more pictures more finely spaced make for a smoother movie, but also a larger file).

  • Use floodlights or daylight instead of strobes (most strobes--even good ones--do not maintain a constant temperature from shot to shot and thus create inconsistent coloring).

While all of the problems mentioned can be mitigated by image editing in a program like Photoshop, they are significantly easier to anticipate in acquisition than fix in production.

Another issue to consider in the production of object movies is the possibility of blue-screening or masking. This is equivalent to the technology used to superimpose a TV weatherman on a map of the United States. The pure blue screen, because of its uniformity, is easy to replace with another scene as long as the color does not also appear on the weatherman. The same is true for object movies. If you use a background very different in color from the object, it is possible later to mask the object and replace the background. The result is an object that will float and spin in the middle of whatever scene you place it in. You could, for example, create a hot spot in a panorama of an excavation that would place a spinnable pot in the location where it was found. There are several examples at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's web site ( that show object movies within exhibit hall scenes.

Linking Panoramas, Stills, and Movies

The process of inserting stills and movies directly into panoramas and connecting these panoramas together into a single VR presentation involves line-by-line coding that uses the virtual reality modeling language (VRML). This is a somewhat arcane but fairly simple operation if you use existing, functional examples as models for your own work. As with the hypertext markup language (HTML) used in web pages, the beauty of VRML and most web-deliverable content is that borrowing is not only standard operating procedure, but the very foundation of progress. In the future, the standard for creating PVR files, most of which will resemble VRML, will be simple graphical interfaces that will function much like the programs currently on the market for easily creating HTML. They will allow drag-and-drop linking and will create files capable of controlling panoramas, stills, movies, and other media.

Assembling Multimedia Presentations

Once you have enough PVR content and want to create a coherent presentation, you may decide to create your own multimedia product. There are more ways to go about this than there are programmers in Silicon Valley, but we can outline some of the important issues to consider.

First, it is important to make some decisions about platform. A Wintel-only application to be delivered via CD-ROM, for example, can be developed very differently from a web site. Once you know something about who will use the application and with what equipment, you can decide what programming and language environment to work in. Visual Basic is an environment capable of developing applications for several platforms, as are Java (Sun's language for which various companies have developed tools), Macromedia Director (a tool that has its own scripting language), Apple Media Tool (a cross-platform, programming-free solution), and mFactory's mTropolis (which combines the strengths of Director and Apple Media Tool). Using each of these environments involves a steep learning curve. A language like Java is more difficult to learn and use but allows you to do almost anything. Object-oriented programs like Director, Apple Media Tool, and mTropolis are easier to use and offer faster production times, but may not have the functionality you need.

HTML is another possible development environment. A web page can present almost any kind of content that was originally developed elsewhere and is hard to beat for simplicity and functionality. A web site also can be written to CD or other media and run locally. Most important, it can be developed and deployed competently by someone at any skill level. This makes it an ideal platform for low-budget, time-sensitive projects whose personnel lack programming expertise.

Some Applications of PVR

Because of its sensory appeal, PVR is an excellent way for the general public to visualize archaeological sites and objects. The technology can be incorporated into museum exhibits, displayed either on standard computer monitors or projected onto large screens. In a recent exhibit of Peruvian archaeological material in San Francisco's De Young Museum, we were able to complement the actual objects with PVR experiences of many of the more important sites. This has evolved into a stand-alone program on CD-ROM, with more than 100 panoramas supplemented by object movies and stills (contact or for information on the CD-ROM). This form of media is ideal, since CD drives are standard on most computers sold today. Many 100s of panoramas, stills, and associated text can easily fit within the 650-mb capacity of these disks, which are inexpensive to produce, durable, and lightweight for mailing. The Internet is another good way to provide access to panoramic programs, and many sites have begun to use PVR to give the visitor a more compelling experience. Apple's QTVR web site lists many of these Internet locations, and more are showing up daily.

We are convinced, however, that more professional use can also be made of PVR. Research at an archaeological site can be described in great detail for the benefit of colleagues, with text accompanied by many 100s of still images, maps, graphs, and so forth. The spatial logic of PVR is unlike more formal means of archaeological reporting, but we believe that it is a very effective means for encouraging familiarity with a place while also presenting archaeological arguments and interpretations.

As a last word of advice, the Internet is a great source of information on this rapidly changing technology. Both the Kaidan ( and Apple Computer QTVR ( web sites are good starting places for an exploration of the topic.

John W. Rick is in the Department of Anthropology of Stanford University; Dakin Hart is assistant to the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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