When Google introduced the latest version of its Android mobile operating system - v4.2 - in November last year the Photosphere 360 degree panorama mode in the camera app was the most talked about new imaging feature.
However, Windows Phone users were quick to point out that a very similar function had been available on their devices for quite some time. Microsoft's Photosynth platform for creating 360 degree panoramas was officially launched in 2008 and the Redmond-based software giant released a corresponding app for Windows Phone 7.5 'Mango' in May last year. However, it took until late February 2013 to update the Photosynth app for Windows Phone 8, making it compatible with latest generation devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920, HTC 8X or Samsung Ativ Odyssey.
Using the Photosynth 'lens'
Update: We first installed Photosynth on Samsung's first Windows Phone 8 device, the Ativ Odyssey and the resulting panoramas showed a lot of stitching errors and alignment problems. Thanks to a comment on this story we found out that officially the app requires a phone with a gyroscope which the Samsung does not have. We repeated the test with a Nokia Lumia 920 which comes with a gyroscope but the results were not much different from the Samsung's. At the bottom of this page you'll find samples shot with both phones.
After the installation Photosynth appears as a 'lens' within the camera app on your device. With the lens selected, image capture is pretty-much conducted in Auto mode (though you can lock exposure and white balance for all frames in the settings menu).
Capturing a sphere is started by tapping the screen. Additional frames are then captured as you move the camera up/down or left/right from the last captured frames. This usually happens automatically but occasionally the 'viewfinder frame' turns yellow to indicate a switch to manual capture. You then have to tap the screen again to record the next image.
If the app is unable to align the next frame the viewfinder turns red and you have to re-align with the last captured frame before you can continue. The app requires some overlap between frames and that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to capture large areas of uniform color such as the sky. That said, even in areas with good contrast and detail you have to re-align pretty often which can slow the whole process down significantly.
Once you think you've captured enough individual frames for your sphere, you tap the OK-button and Photosynth starts the rendering process. On the Samsung Ativ Odyssey this takes approximately 30 seconds but on more powerful devices, such as the Lumia 920, take a few seconds less. After rendering is complete the end result can be shared on photosynth.net and/or the usual social networks. It can be shared either as a 2D panoramic image or an interactive panorama. If you want to use this second option, it has to be uploaded to the Photosynth website first.
Overall the capture process is straightforward and intuitive but the frequent need to re-align the framing makes it a little painful to use and slower than the Android Photosphere equivalent.
Below I have posted a few results of my test session with the app and, as you can see, they are pretty disappointing. Using a phone with a built-in gyroscope really doesn't make too much difference. Photosynth does well in adjusting the exposure and white balance across the entire image but it's the stitching that really ruins the fun. You mostly still get a good idea of the scenery the image was captured in though.
The stitching quality of panoramic images can usually be improved by mounting the camera on a tripod, ideally with a panoramic head but this being an app for mobile devices we used both smartphones handheld, as the vast majority of users would do.
Microsoft's Image Composite Editor, the Photosynth desktop app, is capable of generating good quality results from images that have been taken with DSLRs on panorama head, but it seems that at this point the mobile app isn't up to the same standards. Hopefully future updates of the app can do both improve the stitching quality of the final image and reduce the need for camera re-alignment during the capturing process.