Full 360-degree panoramas once involved big DSLRs, tripods with panorama heads and a lot of shooting and editing time. But today the processing power of smartphones means that much of this work can be done by a device you carry in your pocket.
Google's Photosphere camera mode which was launched with Android 4.2 and the Nexus 4 smartphone allows you to capture a full 360-degree panorama that can then be browsed either on the device or in the Google Plus photo viewer. (It's also available on the new Nexus 5, which we just reviewed.) You can shoot handheld, with the app guiding the framing of the individual images and doing the final stitching fully automatically. Microsoft's equivalent is called Photosynth and can be installed as a so-called "lens," an add-on the camera app, on most Windows phones. The third-party app Sphere comes pre-installed on the Sony Xperia Z1 that we reviewed recently but is available free of charge in the app stores for both iPhone and Android devices.
These apps produce interesting results that allow for the presentation of a space in a three-dimensional manner and are fun to browse in a dedicated viewer, but at this point in their development they still come with a few weaknesses. The capturing of a sphere can be somewhat longwinded, with a lot of frames to shoot and align, and the final stitching is usually far from perfect.
Enter the Motrr Galileo. The Galileo was born as a Kickstarter project and is a robotic platform that connects to your iPhone or iPod via the 32-pin connector of the older devices or bluetooth on the iPhone 5, 5s and 5c. In combination with the Sphere iOS app it lets you automate the panorama capturing process with much more precision than handheld shooting would allow. This speeds the entire process up considerably and should, at least in theory, lead to better image results.
But that's not all the Galileo can do. Sphere is the most interesting app to use with the Galileo, but there are a bunch of other apps that support the device. (This page gives you an overview of all the apps that currently work with Galileo.) But let's have a closer look at the Galileo's performance as a 360-degree panorama capturing device.
Capturing a sphere
Capturing a 360-degree panorama with the Motrr Galileo and the Sphere app is pretty straightforward. For our test we used an iPhone 5 which connects to the Galileo via Bluetooth. For older iPhone models there is a different Galileo version that physically connects via the 32-pin connector.
To get started you have to select the Galileo option in the Sphere app menu. When working with the Bluetooth version the interface then asks you to twist the base of the Galileo. This activates the Galileo's Bluetooth and a message pops up on the phone screen, asking you to confirm the connection.
Once iPhone and Galileo are paired via Bluetooth you can also connect them physically and stick the phone into the rubber holder in the Galileo's top plate. With our iPhone 5 there is a tiny bit of play, but overall the fit seems quite secure, certainly enough to keep the iPhone in its place while capturing a sphere.
At this point all you have to do is make sure the the Galileo is locked in landscape orientation and you can hit the start button on the screen. From there on the process is fully automatic, the Galileo pans and tilts the phone camera to capture all the frames required for the panorama. All you have to do is wait for the final result which on the iPhone 5 took approximately 30 seconds to compute.
Once processing is finished the panorama is ready to view in the Sphere app. You can opt to upload it to the Sphere website and share via social media or email. The output JPEG is also saved in the iPhone's camera roll but you have to view it in the Sphere app or website for the full spatial experience.
As you can see in the sphere below the Galileo does a very good job in aligning the frames which results in noticeably better stitching than what we've seen from handheld panorama spheres. However, the results are not perfect and you'll still find a few stitching errors in most spheres. Other image quality characteristics such as noise, sharpness, white balance or exposure are of course determined by the camera of the phone you are using.
Like virtually all panorama apps that we have tried Sphere is struggling with moving objects in the capture area. If you take a Sphere in a busy place you will almost certainly end up with a few ghosting artifacts, people with disappearing body parts or vehicles that appear to be entering a parallel dimension.
In this respect the Motrr Galileo does not improve your results over handheld shooting. In the sphere below a person got close to the device during capture which lead to the ghosting and tonal differences at the center of the image.
The next panorama was captured indoors on a desk tripod. Again, there are few stitching errors, as usual they are worse on objects closer to the lens. The "blurry disc" at the bottom of the sphere, the area below the camera which is not covered by the lens, also appears more intrusive in enclosed spaces. However, although it is not perfect, this result is significantly better than what you could get when shooting handheld in a room.
The Motrr Galileo is well-made, portable and, in combination with the Sphere iOS app, very easy to use. The panorama results are not perfect but visibly better than what you get when shooting handheld. Frequent panorama shooters will also appreciate the speed of the system. With the Galileo aligning your framing for you, the automated process is considerably quicker than the manual one.
For users who only occasionally shoot panoramas the price point of $149 might be a little steep, so you probably want to check if you can make use of any of the other available Motrr apps before you hit the buy button. But for iPhone users who shoot 360-degree images on a regular basis the Motrr Galileo is an easy sell. Android users will have to wait until 2014 for a compatible version and we're looking forward to testing the concept with the best of 2014's Android smartphones.