You may have seen iPIX pictures on your web travels. They are often used on retail sites to help you look around the store or by online estate agents offering you the virtual house buying experience.
If you've missed the experience, iPIX allows you to step into your pictures - using a creation known as immersive imaging. To create one you need a camera with a fisheye lens and a bit of clever software that stitches the pictures together. You should also employ the use of a Rotator, also sold by iPIX in three kits.
The Rotator pack, tested here, has just the software and Rotator; a Starter Pack adds a fisheye lens; and a Professional kit comes with rotator, software, fisheye lens, Coolpix 995 camera and tripod. iPIX who started out with kits for old DC Kodak cameras are focusing their efforts now on Nikon but also do kits for a couple of Olympus models. We have a Coolpix 995 and have just acquired the fisheye lens so the 100 Rotator pack is all we need
Having heard about the rotator my first thought was, 100? For a lump of metal that can only loosely be defined as a bracket? Is it made of gold? I immediately went to work creating iPix pictures without bothering with the bracket. Waste of money! My tripod has a pan head. I can simply stick the camera on take a shot, pan around 180 degrees and take the second shot. The results proved the theory may sound fine, but the practice is dreadful. The problem comes when you swivel the camera. The protruding fisheye lens sticks out by around 10cm, so a full 180 degree arc gives a shift of over 20cm. And the stitched results look dreadful. This worth-its-weight-in-gold lump of metal ensures the lens nodal point is perfectly placed above the tripod, so when the two shots are taken back to back, they can be stitched with ease, as you will see later in the review.
Before you attach the fisheye lens onto the camera you need to poke it through the hole on the Rotator. Then, when the lens is screwed up tight on the camera move the Rotator so it fits snugly against the mushroom shape of the lens and align the two so the camera is horizontal and the Rotator vertical. Then tighten the grip using the supplied hexagonal Allen key. Here's my first criticism. While out and about you may want to switch between normal fisheye and immersive photography and it's too fiddly. On my excursion I even forgot to take the Allen key and ended up with all my fisheye shots having the base of the Rotator showing. The Rotator could be improved by adding a built in locking nut.
Now the camera is set up it's time to take pictures. Nikon Coolpix cameras have an automatic converter setting that you find by going into the setup mode. Here you can select the fisheye option which then selects the best focal length. All you really need to do though is zoom back to wide-angle to get the full circular fisheye image.
The knack now is to choose your viewpoint carefully. On my first attempt I didn't consider any of this and went merrily on my way shooting loads of different potential were terrible I could have done a better stitching job with a whale harpoon! Having studied examples on the Ipix Web site it soon became obvious that you need to ensure that the area that is going to be stitched has to be very simple in terms of detail.
When you line up your camera look 90 degrees to your left and make sure it's something like a thick tree stump or plain wall. Try to ensure the subject 90 degrees to the right is also simple. The other extreme is in the examples I shot woodland where the picture is a mass of small patterns from the dead leaves on the ground to the distant green leaves on the tress. A bit of poor matching here isn't going to be noticed.
Back in at the computer, open up the software. I used the iPIX Wizard on a Mac you also get iPIX 360 degree Suite for Windows.
The first stage will ask you to calibrate your camera this sets up the software to work with your camera/lens combination. The pictures will then be stitched together giving optimum results. Once the calibration's done. You'll see the dialogue box on the left. This is where all the preferences are set up and the pictures are input ready to be stitched.
You select the front image and the software then picks up the next image and drops it in the back window. Now click build and the program goes into action. It takes about one minute and then you see the resulting iPIX image.
You may have noticed from the example above that the tripod's pan handle is in view. Unfortunately getting this, and part of the mount, in frame is impossible to avoid so you have one of two choices. Either select a tripod cap before you build the photo or clone out the offending items in your image editing program. The tripod cap is a round .bmp that covers the area and can be used as an advertising spot to promote you photography or company (Click here to see how you can create your own caps). I found this too intrusive and prefer to clone out the problems, but this can be hit and miss.
You also have the option to add a bit of music with the image to create the full multimedia experience
If you're happy with the result once built you can then save the picture, and here's the crunch. You can only save pictures if you buy keys -special serial numbers that allow images to be saved. Each key costs about 16 so you really have to be careful which you save. While a business user would probably find the gimmick of these photos on their web site would improve visits and they would easily pay their way an enthusiast user will probably find the cost prohibiting. I think a tiered system would be more appropriate, but that's probably very difficult to police.
Having done several versions like the open forest shot you can see below, I decided to try something a little more challenging. Turn the tripod column upside down and position the camera at ground level. Instant new problems. You're now shooting through the legs of the tripod so they appear monstrously all over the picture. Cloning these out was attempted but there's no way you could replace the cloned areas with something that the program could use to stitch the two halves together. Still it was a good exercise and although you can see the joins I really like the effect of peering round from a worm's eye view. I shall keep trying until I crack this one.
The iPIX files are quite large so we've seperated from this test page to prevent long waits. However if you don't have an up to date browser you may not be able to view them, so apologies if that is the case.
Click on above image to see original rotating iPIX version. Click here to see the second image. (These files are large and loading might take several minutes)
This is really good fun and the images can be amazing. If you are a web developer looking for a fresh approach or a business person who wants your customers to get inside your shop/studio/office, you can do a grand job with this. If you're an enthusiast with a digital camera, however, who desires a fisheye lens and thinks this would be a fun addition remember you're going to have to pay 16 per photo that you want to save and that's crazy money. Test by Peter Bargh