Could we do 360-degree virtual tours better?

360-degree virtual tours? We’re doing them wrong.

If you’ve been involved in any form of UI development, you’ll know that there’s a golden rule for all user-centric processes – don’t make your audience work for it.

We’ve been producing 360-degree virtual tours for a while now, and we can see it’s an area of media production that seems to have overlooked this principle. And it’s easy to see the cause. It’s not the photographers who are producing virtual tours, but the systems and tools we’re using to create them.

Take Google Street View, for example. Google recommends that each photo is shot at intervals of three metres apart outdoors, one metre indoors. Similarly, Matterport recommends a scan interval between 1.5m and 2.5m, while Cupix suggests a maximum of three steps apart. So a relatively small room can require nine or more 360-degree panoramas.

The point of these recommendations is to give the algorithms that drive Google, Matterport and Cupix a better chance of accurately and automatically connecting the panoramas. Which is great for photographers, because we can hand off the hard work of creating a virtual tour to a computer.

But is it great for the viewer?

We’re not entirely convinced that it is. Interval-based navigation makes sense from a Street View perspective, but when you step inside a venue, its limitations quickly become apparent. Take the navigation controls, for example. With automated connections, clusters of adjacent 360-degree photos result in an ugly clutter of navigation arrows that distract from the venue photography.

Something else to consider is the nature of 360-degree cameras. It sounds obvious to say that they see everywhere, but when you add multiple viewpoints to the mix, you’re increasing the chances that your customers will be shown aspects of your venue that you prefer not to publicise.

But the biggest issue with the UX is that we expect our viewers to ‘walk’ through your venue step-by-step. Ask yourself this question – is it actually valuable to give your customer access to nine different perspectives (or more) in a single room? Wouldn’t it be better to give them a single panorama that perfectly captures the look, lighting and feel of the room, with unobtrusive, single-click navigation to any adjacent rooms? It’s certainly worth considering.

Wouldn’t it be better to give them a single panorama that perfectly captures the look, lighting and feel of the room?

There is, of course, room for both styles, and the way you intend to deliver your virtual tour will define the approach you take. If you’re using Google Street View, Matterport, or Cupix, then you don’t really have a choice. But if you’re creating a tour that you want to host or embed on your own website, you have far greater control. And we’d advocate that you take advantage of that freedom. Because there are significant benefits to taking a room-by-room approach. By reducing the number of photographs in your virtual tour, your photographer can spend more time making sure that each shot is perfect. They can also consider more creative approaches like timelapse, long exposures, or motion blur.

The same holds true for post-production. Done properly, HDR processing, de-ghosting, noise-reduction, selective blur, and ‘shopping out unwanted elements takes time. And, when a 40-point virtual tour can require at least 720 individual exposures, it’s hardly surprising that many Street View photographers skip these steps entirely. (We don’t.)

System reliance leads to systematic thinking

And finally, as photographers, we’re extremely wary of building process dependency into the way we do things. The moment we allow systems to completely determine how and why we do our work, we risk becoming systematic ourselves. That’s the death of creativity, and can turn an occupation you love into a just a job that you do.

That might not sound like it’s the end of the world, but we love doing what we do because we do it our way. To us, it’s not about getting the job done. It’s about getting it done right.

Laurence

Laurence is a Sydney-based media producer and editor. After a long haul as the Head of Creative for a well-known global software company, he now leads YouThere.Media, a production startup specialising in 360 photography and video. He also has a patent for an augmented reality marker, which makes his mother very proud - even though she doesn't really understand what it does.