A virtual exhibition for Easterly Artists
The “In Isolation” virtual exhibition for Easterly Artists was put together over a period of about two weeks from a standing start with no prior knowledge or experience of creating virtual experiences other than a curiosity about the way Google Street View works.
The initial focus was on understanding Google Street View. Downloading the Google Street View App ( Android and iPhone) made me realize that many of us have the ability to create the raw data of virtual experiences in our hands every day. The capture function in Google street view allows mobile phone users to capture 360-degree photographs by automatically stitching together upwards of 30 or so individual photographs taken standing in a single spot. It’s impressive but you do quickly realize the limitations. It’s difficult to rotate the phone about a consistent position so inevitably some of the stitching struggles to work. However, there are specialist cameras that simultaneously take just two fisheye lens views to create 360-degree images in a single shot. Surprisingly entry-level cameras such as the Ricoh Theta start at only £250.
As I wanted to be able to create virtual experiences outside of the Google Street View project I wanted to understand what file format is used. It turns out it’s both very simple and a bit clever. The simple bit is that it’s just a jpeg file,( like every other photo in your digital world) but one that needs to meet some specific criteria. Firstly it has to be a landscape format rectangle with a size ratio of 2:1. It also has to fit within quite a broad range in terms of the number of pixels ( generally more is good but there is a limit). But most importantly the image has been mapped onto the rectangle as an equirectangular projection. You may think you know nothing about equirectangular projections but wait. You all will have seen large rectangular wall maps of the world. Well, they are equirectangular projections of the surface of the earth.
A Paper Template
Software or cameras composing equirectangular projections use lots of fancy maths but a quick google of equirectangular projection and you find template drawings that transpose a grid of horizontal and vertical lines within a space and lay them out as an equirectangular projection. Armed with this it is possible with a fair degree of spatial imagination to draw directly in equirectangular projection in a not dissimilar way that you might draw in a perspective projection.
Creating the image file
So armed with a printed out grid, some tracing paper, and a pencil you can create an equirectangular projection drawing of a 360-degree view. All you need to then do is photograph it with your mobile phone ( take care to align it up as straight as possible). The photograph then needs to be edited down to an exact 2:1 ratio ( I use Photopea its a free online image editing tool that has been designed to replicate the full capabilities of Photoshop. To get the software to recognize that the jpeg is intended to be interpreted as a 360-degree view rather than just a rectangular image you need to then add a little tag into the file.
All cameras automatically add lots of information into jpeg files. 360-degree cameras and stitching software add a special tag and this is what needs to be replicated to complete the creation of a hand-drawn 360-degree view. Initially, a bit stumped but then I came across a help page on Facebook which quickly clarified that the required additional tag is an Exif XMP tag which specifies that the “ProjectionType=equirectangular”. Also, the article recommends Exifier (https://www.thexifer.net/) a web-based tool for editing the tags in image files which makes the job very simple to do.
Testing the experience
Next test your 360-degree drawing. The simplest way is uploading it to Facebook. As long as you have fulfilled all the criteria set out above then the platform immediately recognizes your file as a 360 virtual image and displays it appropriately with the usual navigation and control functions. Hey, presto you can experience your own hand-drawn virtual environment. You can also view the image with specific 360-degree viewer apps for computers, Android, or iPhone.
Authoring on WordPress
I wanted to be able to host my virtual space on a website and enrich the experience with content embedded into the space. I already knew that there is a whole world of great and geeky plugins available to the WordPress community so I looked. Sure enough, there is a plugin that has been developed for authoring virtual tours within WordPress sites ( and to think it started off as a text blogging tool) The plugin is called WP VR. There is a limited functionality free version and the paid version is $45 per year for a single site. It’s not the most intuitive of interfaces but with a lot of trial and error and a fair few late nights I was able to create the “In Isolation” exhibition. I took care to test the experience on laptops and a series of different mobile phones. Over 50% of visits to websites are now from mobile phones so I wanted to make the experience as accessible as possible. It may have 48 hotspots with on hover links and on click pop up images but the exhibition is just 1 scene. Creating multiple linked scenes would allow an experience that moves through the imagined space rather than standing still and looking around. There are more sophisticated options than WPVR available. The potential to create an even richer experience is there to be tried. Watch this space!
Contact Hugh Davies at paper-works to find out how we could help you create hand-drawn virtual spaces.