Creating a rapid 360 tour using a mobile phone and Google Tour Creator

I was recently asked to upload a virtual 360 tour of a police station into Moodle. The activity really impressed me; it was informative and engaging. It got me thinking, how easy would it be to create something like this myself? Quickly and on a budget.

It was unfortunate that this activity had been commissioned, so I wasn’t involved in the creation process. Circus was the company who created this particular activity, I’d recommend taking a look at their website to view some samples of their work (see resources section below for details). I’ve never explored a police station myself and the activity gave a behind the scenes view of the different areas. There were hotspots available to click which provided you with further information about the different areas.

What is a virtual 360 tour?

There are different types of tours available and they can be used with AR or VR, in this blog post I will be talking about basic tours that can be accessed via a web browser. You can create a virtual tour of pretty much anywhere. Using a camera, multiple photos are taken of an area mapping 360-degrees. These photos are then pieced together to create a panorama image. You can then navigate around this photo, which mimics the feeling of being in the room/area. The easiest way to put these tours together is to use an application. Depending on the app you use, you can overlay text and multimedia (audio and video) on top of your photos to create hotspot areas.

Example panorama, I’ve scaled this down to 1280 x 768 for this post as the actual resolution is 8000 x 4000.
What are they useful for?

These tours have become popular during lockdown as they allow people to explore places from the comfort of their own home using a computer, keyboard and mouse.

So why did I want to create one?

After seeing how impressive the Circus tour was, it got me thinking about several things.

  • How easy are these to create?
  • Do I need specialist equipment?
  • Can I create one for free?
  • What is the development process?
  • What would my creation look like compared to a paid-for professional service?
Tools and technology

I must admit, when I started down this path I didn’t spend a lot of time researching tools and technologies. My approach was to see how rapidly I could put something together with the tools I already had. So this is just a note to say that there may be better apps and software available.

Hardware

I didn’t purchase any new hardware for this, I used my smartphone. It’s a OnePlus 6T, you can view the tech specifications here. In the past, I’ve looked into purchasing a 360 camera, but they’re really expensive and I’ve never been able to justify the cost. It’s something I will explore in the future.

Software

Because I used my smartphone I needed to use an app to assist in taking 360 photos. I used Google Street View for this. You simply open up the app, select the photo icon and choose Photo Sphere. The app then guides you through taking photos that cover a 360-degree area. I already had this app installed so I didn’t even need to download it.

Putting the tour together and making it available to someone to access was more tricky. I decided to use free software and stick with Google, so I chose to build my tour in Tour Creator and share it via Poly.

Approach

I’ve never created something like this myself before, so this was my first, exploratory project. This was like dipping my little toe into the water, so I realise this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I just so happened to have a trip to the New Forest booked in the summer. I found a couple of nice spots to take photos opened up the app and got snapping. I wanted to create a tour that included some information on the New Forest. The photos were stored in a panoramic photo folder on my phone, so when I got home I copied these to my computer. I then signed-up to Tour Creator and imported my photos then added several hotspots and information. When I was done, I published this to Poly (which is the default publishing area in Tour Creator). And that was pretty much it. Here is the result.

Overall, I was happy with the way the photos were stitched together (apart from the close up of the information board, this came out a bit blurry and the over image quality could have been improved)…and yes…there are only a few hotspots in the tour…boo!! But there are reasons for this. Tour creator is a bit limited in what it can do. You add hotspots and inside these you add content. I was hoping that I could add my own images to act as hotspots, but these icons are actually predefined. I was also hoping to add some text overlays, but it turned out you can’t do that either. Text must be inside a hotspot. Ultimately what you end up with is a custom photo hot graphic type of activity.

I also wasn’t overly keen on the way you navigate through the tour either. When you begin the tour it instantly starts slowly moving around the image – which was annoying and I couldn’t find a way to turn it off.

You are also limited in the way you navigate around the photo. In many of the tours I’ve seen, you can click on a hotspot or double-click on certain areas to move to another area. For example, if the tour was of a house and you started in the kitchen, you could double click the door and the hallway tour loads. In Tour Creator you’re stuck with using the default navigation tools along the bottom of the screen.

Example showing the navigation tools.

I don’t want to give an unfair view of Tour Creator, so here are some cool templates I found. The solar system is my favourite one.

These will hopefully give you a better picture of what the application can do.

Technical difficulties

So the process of taking the photos was a bit tricky. I managed to take photos of my feet a couple of times – I had to photoshop these out!

Clouds and wind were also an issue – basically, if there was any movement of any kind in the environment the camera would pick it up and create an awkward type ‘stitch’ in the photo. If you’re outside, taking photos on a completely overcast day/sunny day with no cloud is recommended. If you’re taking photos inside, watch out for lighting/sunlight and any shadows.

Other people were also an issue. As my husband was with me, he had to stand directly behind me. When I managed to find a quiet area, dog walkers or people would appear from nowhere, so I often had to wait for them to leave the area before continuing with the shot.

Summary

Overall it was an interesting experiment and I learnt a lot. Let’s look at my original questions…

  • How easy are these to create?
    • Overall it was really easy to create.
  • Do I need specialist equipment?
    • No expensive equipment was needed to make something very basic.
  • Can I create one for free?
    • You can create something for free, but often at a cost. Features in software applications can be limiting.
  • What is the development process?
    • Not too tricky, to get it right it takes some planning e.g. where you are going, weather, environment etc. Photos might need editing and you’ll need to think about the content you want to include and the overall purpose of the tour.
  • What would my creation look like compared to a paid-for professional service?
    • So in this instance, the overall result wasn’t as sleek and attention-grabbing as the professional service. But that’s not to say it can’t be. However, once you’ve purchased better equipment and software, it might be more cost-effective to just hire a professional.

I think it would definitely be worthwhile spending some time researching other applications that can be used to create these tours. Perhaps there is something better and free out there.

Resources

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