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Hands-on with Android 4.2's Photo Sphere

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Android 4.2's camera app lets you create a 360° Photos Sphere which is stitched together out of a large number of individual images.

Early last week Google started shipping the first of its new devices running Android 4.2 -- the Nexus 4 smartphone and the Nexus 7 and 10 tablets. But Google also had a pleasant suprise for those of us who were not lucky enough to snatch one of the shiny new Nexus devices: the Android 4.2 update for last year's Nexus phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and other compatible hardware, was made available on the same day.

Despite still sporting the 'Jelly Bean' label, Android 4.2 comes with a number of interesting updates such as  multi-user support, wireless streaming to HD TVs, auto-resizing widgets and gesture typing. However, from the photographer's point of view, the most interesting new feature is no doubt the Photo Sphere camera. We've installed Android 4.2 on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus and tried the new feature. Read on to find out how we got on.

User interface

Photo Sphere is very easy to use. After starting the camera app you select the Photo Sphere mode which sits alongside the panorama, still image and video modes that were already available in previous versions of the app. A small 'framing window' appears at the center of your screen. This is used to frame the first image of your -- at this point -- 'empty' sphere. Inside the frame you'll see a blue dot and a circle which need to be aligned for the first image to be captured.

You'll see this screen when you choose the Photo Sphere mode in the camera app. As soon as you align the blue dot with the circle, the phone captures the first image.
More blue dots appear to indicate which frames to capture next to start building your Photo Sphere.
Once the next picture is taken, the app starts creating a crude version of the sphere ...
so you get an idea what the final product will look like as you go along.

Once the first image has been taken, more blue dots appear above, below, left and right to indicate where you should to point your device to continue capturing the individual frames to create your sphere. Again, an image is taken as soon as the blue dot and the circle align, there is no need to press the shutter button. This process continues until the entire sphere around you has been covered. You can terminate early by tapping the shutter button and the app will start rendering the final image using the frames you have captured up to this point. However, you'll have to keep going until no more blue dots emerge on your screen in order to render a complete sphere.

When you're finished capturing the invidual frames and no more blue dots appear, only two small areas at the 'poles' of your sphere remain uncovered. They'll appear as black circles in the sphere.
Once all blue dots have been aligned, you have to hit the shutter button to start the rendering process. This takes approximately 40 seconds on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

As you go along the individual images are stitched together in a rudimentary way. You can already move through the sphere by moving your phone around, but only in the final version will the app make an attempt to even out exposure differences between the inividual frames and correct for perspective errors.

The output image

On the 5MP Galaxy Nexus, you'll capture a 360° panoramic image using Photo Sphere with an approximate size of 4600 x 1600 pixels. As you can see in the sample below, the stitching is far from perfect with a number of stitching errors and 'vanishing' moving subjects. Exposure differences between two frames can cause some trouble, too. This is visible just below the bright reflection on the front of the left building.

In the standard view the final sphere pretty much like any other panorama, you'll need to view it in the gallery app's Photo Sphere mode or on Google Plus to appreciate the 'immersive' experience.

However, like many panorama apps, Photo Sphere struggles most with moving subjects and image elements that are placed close to the camera. The rendition of the latter can be improved by rotating the device as much around its center point as possible when capturing the sphere images, without changing its position in space -- this is exactly what a panorama tripod head would do. Few photographers would think about using one of those with a smartphone, but you can definitely improve stitching quality with the right capturing technique.

Stichting errors occur most frequently on objects that are close to the camera.
Like many panorama apps, Photo Sphere struggles with moving subjects in the frame.

Below you can see another sample sphere that was captured in a park, with most objects in the image further away from the phone's lens and no moving subjects. As you can see in the full-size version there are much fewer stitching errors in this sphere than in the one above.

With most image elements at a distance from the lens and no moving subjects, this sample shows fewer stitching errors than the sample above.

Viewing the Photo Sphere

Of course looking at a Photo Sphere with a standard image viewer is only half the fun. Viewed in a dedicated sphere viewer you get the impression of being immersed into the scene and even moving within it. The easiest way to do that is on your phone. If you open a Photo Sphere in the Android 4.2 standard gallery app it is first displayed like any other image, but you can open the Photo Sphere viewer by tapping on the icon and then zoom in and out and 'move' through the scene using the familiar pinch and swipe gestures.

If you open a sphere in the gallery app you have to tap on the sphere symbol at the bottom ...
and then you can view it in 'sphere mode' to get the full effect of your Photo Sphere.

When viewing a sphere in the Android gallery app you've also got the option to convert it into a 'Tiny Planet' image. When doing this you can adjust the zoom factor and apply the usual editing functions: filters, borders, cropping and tonal corrections. The Tiny Planet function is only available if you have captured an entire sphere. If you had your GPS swtitched on while capturing the sphere you can share it on Google Maps, too.

You can convert your sphere into a 'Tiny Planet' image in the gallery app.

The easiest way to view your Photo Spheres on a computer is to upload them to your Google+ account. Click here and here to see our two samples from above on Google+. When viewing the latter, you'll also see that I missed one row of blue dots when capturing the sphere which results in the sphere not being 360° rotatable. This can actually happen quite easily, so make sure you've covered all blue dots in the capturing process before you hit the shutter button to render the sphere.

The new Android Photo Sphere feature is definitely fun to use and is a different way of capturing a scene, giving you an almost three-dimensional viewing experience. With Android 4.2 released just last week it'll take a while before Photo Sphere will arrive on most Android devices, but if you don't want to wait there are a number of third party 360° panorama apps available in the Google Play store, such as  360 Panorama or Photo 360° by Sfera


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Click here to discuss this app in our Android forum

 

Comments

Total comments: 38
angharadkate98
By angharadkate98 (5 months ago)

I have android 4.2.2 on my xperia z and I cant find this?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (2 days ago)

It's only in the "pure" Android version you'd find in Google Nexus devices. However, there are alternatives in the App Store. Check out 360 Instant Panorama from TeliportMe for example.

0 upvotes
Hanuman - Monkey Boy
By Hanuman - Monkey Boy (6 months ago)

Thank you for this great article. I made my first Photo Sphere with my Galaxy Note 3. This is pretty exciting. Take a look.

https://plus.google.com/photos/101321898346107358845/albums/5933696760501070385/5933696755441275410?pid=5933696755441275410&oid=101321898346107358845

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 5 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
OzoneOctane
By OzoneOctane (11 months ago)

Is there a Windows programme so that you can see these 3D panorama's on your PC as well?

Thanks for any response.

0 upvotes
Plastek
By Plastek (Nov 29, 2012)

Nokia Windows Phone got something like that ever since first release. No idea why the excitement.

1 upvote
GURL
By GURL (Nov 25, 2012)

The second example (blue sky, green grass and the sun) is stunning!

The main point for me is not about stitching errors but that the camera dynamic range is large enough to avoid the ugly result one usually get when the sun is included in the view. Any idea about that ?

0 upvotes
Michael Berg
By Michael Berg (Nov 24, 2012)

Funny with all these negative comments. When the 4.2 update arrived for my Nexus, this particular feature was the one that just blew me away, and I've been more than happy with the results. Come on, you now have a unique and remarkable technology that allows you to capture much more than just a snapshot, and something to wow your family, your friends or even your fellow tourists with. And it's not even in your camera, it's in your PHONE for crying out loud. Can't you just enjoy the update you just got, for FREE by the way?

0 upvotes
thinkfat
By thinkfat (Nov 23, 2012)

I've seen it in action. It's not achieving quality results. A gimmick.

0 upvotes
Gregg Tavares
By Gregg Tavares (Nov 22, 2012)

As mentioned 360 has been around for a while and at least the iOS version is arguably better than PhotoSphere. Unfortunately the Android version is apparently not so good.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWIai0FzRgw

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 23, 2012)

Well, yeah that app is mentioned at the end of the article. Photo Sphere is part of the standard Android OS though, not a 3rd party app.

0 upvotes
mehran langari
By mehran langari (Nov 21, 2012)

its a very exiting highteq

0 upvotes
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (Nov 21, 2012)

Hopefully soon, they was update it so it locks exposure.

2 upvotes
sodacan
By sodacan (Nov 21, 2012)

"Like many panorama apps, Photo Sphere struggles with moving subjects in the frame."

Uh, what on earth were you expecting when you shot that? That's a 100% user error and it did an excellent job at handling it.

6 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 21, 2012)

How could it possibly have handled it worse?

Comment edited 12 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
drh681
By drh681 (Nov 21, 2012)

It could have caught something coming out of the portal.

0 upvotes
aquadust
By aquadust (Nov 21, 2012)

Your results are strange indeed. I already saw several Photosphere pictures taken by new Nexus 4 and I have to say, it was almost perfectly stitched together.

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 21, 2012)

As I say in the article the stitching depends on many factors, the pano in the park is stitched much better then the one in the plaza. But what you see here is essentially what you get when you capture a sphere handheld as most users would do.

1 upvote
GURL
By GURL (Nov 25, 2012)

"The stitching depends on many factors"

I suppose you are knowing but want not to explain there that the most important factor is not moving the camera lens between shots.

That is: for spherical panoramas you must shoot in all directions FROM THE VERY SAME POINT...

Fine hand-held 360*180 panos are possible but this needs some practice!. As a result not including the zenith nor the nadir was a wise idea but including less ground than sky in the view would have been preferable as this is often where large stitching errors are located.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 9 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
panoviews
By panoviews (Nov 21, 2012)

http://maps.google.com/help/maps/businessphotos/

0 upvotes
gl2k
By gl2k (Nov 21, 2012)

It's like any other photo gimmick. After a couple of times it becomes boring.

3 upvotes
panoviews
By panoviews (Nov 21, 2012)

It's possible to use the spherical viewer of Google+ writing the Photo Sphere XMP tags (for example with Photoshop) into a stitched panorama image:

<rdf:Description rdf:about=""
xmlns:GPano="http://ns.google.com/photos/1.0/panorama/">
<GPano:UsePanoramaViewer>True</GPano:UsePanoramaViewer>
<GPano:ProjectionType>equirectangular</GPano:ProjectionType>
<GPano:CroppedAreaImageWidthPixels>4096</GPano:CroppedAreaImageWidthPixels>
<GPano:CroppedAreaImageHeightPixels>2048</GPano:CroppedAreaImageHeightPixels>
<GPano:FullPanoWidthPixels>4096</GPano:FullPanoWidthPixels>
<GPano:FullPanoHeightPixels>2048</GPano:FullPanoHeightPixels>
<GPano:CroppedAreaLeftPixels>0</GPano:CroppedAreaLeftPixels>
<GPano:CroppedAreaTopPixels>0</GPano:CroppedAreaTopPixels>
</rdf:Description>
</rdf:RDF>

1 upvote
OneGuy
By OneGuy (Nov 21, 2012)

My head's spinning but that's ok. The addition of (semi)cardinals should help

0 upvotes
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Nov 21, 2012)

There is nothing new with this type of panorama......Sony has it in their Cameras for ages........

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 21, 2012)

If you are referring to Sony's sweep panorama...that's not the same....it just takes the panorama pics along one axis

6 upvotes
yousaf
By yousaf (Nov 22, 2012)

Apple added it in IOS 6....

But it all those take it in one direction only, while Photoshpere take a sphere. Understand the difference.

0 upvotes
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (Nov 21, 2012)

I really like how you can go up and down with this pano. Also along with the sphere feature, they added alot of editing tools! curves is a big one.

1 upvote
siphyn
By siphyn (Nov 21, 2012)

What android 4.2 rom has those notification toggles? Or is that an app?

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 21, 2012)

That's the 'Power Toggles' app, I recommend it.

1 upvote
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (Nov 21, 2012)

Also power widget it a good one.

1 upvote
HowaboutRAW
By HowaboutRAW (Nov 20, 2012)

Still no camera phones shooting raw yet.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 20, 2012)

not yet, I am sure we'll get there at some point

0 upvotes
Oliver Lang
By Oliver Lang (Nov 21, 2012)

Some apps on iOS shoot lossless JPEG (tiff files), but you're right - no RAW as yet.

0 upvotes
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (Nov 21, 2012)

Actually dev's did have it shooting raw(it being the galaxy nexus.) but nothing could read the files.

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 21, 2012)

Sounds interesting, I need to find out more :-)

0 upvotes
Combatmedic870
By Combatmedic870 (Nov 21, 2012)

I believe it was AOKP

0 upvotes
yousaf
By yousaf (Nov 22, 2012)

Galaxy Camera has achieved root, and hopefully samsung releases source code for it. this way we might get RAW files.

0 upvotes
drh681
By drh681 (Nov 20, 2012)

Welcome to Photosynth.

4 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 20, 2012)

That's not available for Android though...as far as I am aware.

3 upvotes
Total comments: 38
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