The Virtual Way of Saint James

A little bit of history…

As a photojournalist and Macintosh user, I was part of a multimedia developers group sponsored by Apple. From there, by coincidence, I was included as a beta tester in a project called Quick Time Virtual Reality.

It was December 1994. At that time, the program was just a programming language and a series of commands, not easy to use for someone who is not a programmer. The good news was that once meticulously programmed, the picture revealed a circular panorama (view) allowing to look around the scenery… something unheard of at that time. From my earliest panoramas, I was certain that, in a not too distant future, I would be able to represent my landscape pictures by means of this new technology.

The quality of the first circular panoramas was not too high, but the subsequent spherical panoramas had a much higher quality already. In the summer of 2009, due to a number of circumstances, the decisive push was given to the project. It gave me the possibility to include these sights in Google Earth, Facebook and, most importantly, publish them with the “streaming” technology. This meant that there was no longer any limitation as to the weight of the files when designing a project that required a high quality.

Being able to zoom images, experience the feeling of "being in place", change the viewpoint, obtain information and levels of interactivity, all this had not been possible before. The conditions were optimum, with an ever-faster ADSL and the Jacobean Year (2010) about to arrive, it was the ideal moment. The participation of the musician and composer Javier Casado in the project determined the development of a new concept of virtual tour. This musician, specialized in composing soundtracks, many of those you might have heard, provided the missing ingredient to get an unprecedented visual experience. I had not done the Camino de Santiago so far, but was aware of the importance and national and international impact it had. It represented a very ambitious goal.

Ricardo Murad / dO2.es

January 2016

The Project

The project of The Virtual Way of Saint James includes photo feature, 360 degree panoramas, music and design. The Virtual Tour has to involve the 8 main routes of the ‘Camino de Santiago’. This consists of making photographs of each route with the most relevant parts and environment with virtual reality panoramic pictures and accompanied by a soundtrack in order to provide the users an unique experience.

Technology

The technology used is based on a virtual tour IVR (immersive reality panoramas with spherical projection). This technology allows the use of extremely high resolution to display landscapes, sceneries and interiors with details that were impossible to obtain before. To achieve this quality level, high-resolution photos are used allowing to achieve panoramas of 50 megapixel and a sophisticated stitching process, to stick the photos together. This is based on an innovative algorithm that allows for the first time to process this amount of information, thanks to the processing speed of today's computers. In principle, the most relevant feature of the use of these technologies is to add to the spectacular viewing with a spherical projection, a level of unprecedented detail. The zoom factor is increased to levels that had not been possible before.

From the information above it is correct to conclude that the weight of the files increases considerably. Files that used to weigh 1 MB in the past, can now reach up to 100 MB. This means that a short tour now is around 1GB. The question is, how to publish this information? Will the user have much delay to get access to the content? The answer is: NO. Due to the use of “streaming”, the view of the panorama is immediate. First, the panorama is being charged at low resolution and immediately passed at high resolution. The “streaming” technology allows an information flow that is not interrupted, and this is combined with multiple versions of the same panorama picture. Like in Google Earth, the panoramic images are updated in real time as you browse the image.

Another important resource is the use of HDRI technology that may resolve one of the most difficult issues, especially in exterior photographs, which is the limited tonal range. For example, when light is being hard, the contrasts strong, when having to shoot dark objects in a light environment or interior photographs (hotels, restaurants) where it is important to see the surroundings, the gardens and the landscape outside. The solution is to shoot the takes with different exposures and process in post-production, allowing the selection of well-exposed areas thoroughly. The results are panoramas that in a conventional photographic technique might have areas over or underexposed and also lack details. Finally, the alternative to embed objects developed with flash, extends the possibilities of interaction with the environment, from "inside" the picture.