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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Follow Lars Rehm on Twitter @larsrehm