CTO Qian Qin throws the Panono prototype camera while company president and founder Jonas Pfeil holds the laptop that, with the prototype, is still necessary  for stitching the final results.

With processoring power in smartphones nearing laptop levels 360-degree panoramas have become a more and more popular application. This year on Dpreview Connect we've had a closer look at Google's Photosphere and Microsoft's Photosynth apps, both handheld solutions, and the Motrr Galileo robotic iPhone cradle. In combination with the Sphere iOS app the latter automates the panorama capturing process and makes it quicker. However, despite the Motrr's advantage over manual alignment all existing solutions have one common flaw: shooting a 360-degree panorama photo takes  significantly longer than taking a normal picture.

Jonas Pfeil, the inventor of the Panono panoramic ball camera, learned this the hard way on a trip to to Tonga where he used a DSLR to capture 360-degree panoramas of the South Sea island's natural beauty. Not only did the island hikes take longer than expected, with all the panorama shooting Jonas also noticed his hiking buddies growing increasingly impatient with the interruptions. After the trip he started thinking about faster ways of shooting 360-degree panoramas and came up with the concept for a ball-shaped and throwable panorama camera.  

The Panono is a ball-shaped panoramic camera with 36 individual camera modules and a built-in accelerometer. Here Jonas Pfeil demonstrates the size and design differences between the working prototype (right) and the design model of the final production unit (left).

He made the ball camera the subject of his master thesis at the Technical University of Berlin and in 2011 built a working prototype with 36 individual image sensors and lenses. Initial feedback at tech conferences and in the media was encouraging and Jonas decided to build a team, found a company and have a go at marketing the Panono camera to consumers.

Panono is currently running a crowdfunding-campaign on Indiegogo to secure the funds for the ambitious project. You can back the project in a variety of ways, one of them is preordering a Panono camera for US$499. Assuming the campaign which ends on the 4th of January is successful, it will be delivered to you in September 2014.

We have a had a chance to meet Jonas and the team at Panono's digs in a Bauhaus-designed former industrial building in Berlin where we got our hands on the working prototype, looked at the design models and had a peek into the Panono testing studio. 

How does it work?

The Panono camera is a ball-shaped throwable camera that contains 36 camera modules, a processor, memory and an accelerometer. There are three ways of using it: you can either throw it in the air in which case the accelerometer triggers the camera at the highest point, trigger it via a built-in shutter button when holding it in your hand or mount it on a tripod or pole and trigger remotely. 

Once the images have been captured they are transferred via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to the connected smartphone where a first low-resolution preview image is stitched. The original image data is sent on via the smartphone's 3G/4G or WiFi connection to Panono's cloud servers where the stitching of the final output panorama happens. 

After the stitching process is finished a copy of the panorama is sent back to the phone for local viewing in the Panono app. Output files will be compatible to the Google Photosphere format and can therefore be uploaded to and viewed on Google Plus. Users will also have access to the original images that were captured by the Panono's individual 36 camera modules. 

By default the entire process, from initial capture to the final shareable result, is fully automated. However, initial feedback from Indiegogo backers suggests that there are users who want some manual control over camera settings. Therefore the production version of the Panono camera will offer manual control over key parameters such as shutter speed, ISO and white balance. There will also be options for bracketing and time-lapse shooting and the team is currently testing an HDR mode. 

Design & Technology

The current prototype is roughly the size of an indoor soccer ball but with a diameter of 11cm (4.33 inches) the final product will be considerably smaller. The weight will be approximately 300 grams (0.66 pounds). The green stripes on the ball help locate the only two controls of the camera. On top you find a shutter button for manual triggering when holding the device in your hand. At the bottom there will be a USB connector and a tripod mount.

On the production design the outer shell is made from a durable polycarbonate. The green lines help in locating the controls.
On this installation in the Panono studio the team is testing the durability of the design prototypes. The production unit will withstand falls from at least 5m (16 ft) height.

A type of styrofoam padding was used to protect the prototype ball camera from impact with the ground or other objects in its way but the production unit's outer shell will be made from a durable polycarbonate. With the Panono being a "throwable" camera ruggedness is the number one priority in the development of the shell and the objective is for the camera to withstand a fall from at least 5 meters (16 feet).

The rugged shell of the prototype contains 36 individual 2MP fixed-focus camera modules. In the production unit those will be replaced by 3MP modules which will then capture a 108MP panorama image. There are no detailed specs available at this point but the camera modules are the same type you would find in the front-facing cameras on high-end smartphones and are used for video-calls.

Besides the camera modules there is a central processor in the ball that controls the camera modules, the data pipeline and wireless communication but since the stitching of the final output panorama happens in the cloud on Panono's servers this CPU does not have to be particularly powerful.

A look into the opened prototype shows the central control board with CPU and memory on the left and the camera modules on the right. The prototype is covered with a type of foam but the final design will feature a durable polycarbonate shell.

The current prototype still has to be connected to a laptop with a cable to transfer image data and stitch the final image, but the production version of the Panono camera will connect to your smartphone via wi-fi and most likely Bluetooth as well. The battery has to be quite large in order to trigger 36 camera modules at the same time and Panono expects the battery in the production version to last long enough to completely fill the internal memory which offers space for approximately 400 panoramic images.

Image Results

There's no doubt throwing a Panono camera in the air is quicker than taking 36 individual frames for stitching on your smartphone but the concept also offers a couple of advantages in terms of image quality. The stitching in the samples below is not quite perfect but visibly better than the results we've seen from smartphone-based solutions. 

The fact that all individual frames of the sphere are captured at the same time also means that there are no problems with moving subjects. In the Panono images you won't find any ghosting, disappearing limbs, multiple versions of the same person in the image or other artifacts that we are used to seeing in most stitched panorama images.

With the Panono's 36 camera modules covering even the area right above and below the ball you also don't get any black or blurred "discs" at the poles of your sphere, like we've seen with Photosphere, Photosynth and similar apps.

All the samples you can see below are from the prototype that was built in 2011. What we are seeing is already quite impressive but with improved processing algorithms and updated camera modules we can expect image quality on the final unit to be even better. You can find many more samples that were shot in some amazing places around the world on the Panono website.

We shot this sample during my visit just outside the Panono offices. It's not the most attractive scenery in the world but the good stitching is immediately obvious and zooming in reveals some additional detail. There are still some chromatic aberrations and lens flare but we would expect those issues to be better under control in the production unit.

The shot below was captured at Hong Kong's Victoria Peak and gives you a better idea of the prototype's performance in bright conditions.

This low-light sample was captured during an interview with the great Dirk Nowitzki after a Dallas Mavericks game in the locker rooms of American Airlines Arena.  In dim conditions the Panono works best while mounted on a pole or tripod as slow shutter speeds and flying cameras are not an ideal combination. 

Final thoughts

After having had the chance to play with it I can say the Panono is one of the most exciting camera innovations I have seen in a while. People will continue taking pictures with conventional cameras for a long time to come but the Panono makes an excellent complementary tool for those who want to capture a scene in its entirety rather than just a narrow crop. It also allows for much quicker panorama shooting and better end results than the smartphone-based solutions we've seen so far. 

In use the attraction of the device to consumers is immediately obvious. It's simply a lot of fun to try the Panono in different locations and with varying throwing heights and then browse the results. However, there's no shortage of applications in professional photography either. The obvious ones are in wedding and event photography where photographers active in those fields could add another element of differentiation to their offerings but there's no doubt once the Panono is on the market users will come up with ways of using it that we can't even imagine right now. If you can't wait to hold a Panono in your hands you can head over to the Indiegogo page and back the project.