Price When Reviewed: £1,299
MGI’s Interactive Imaging Suite is a complete authoring and serving suite for navigable Web scenes that include ‘immersive imaging’ panoramas and 3D object images. It’s a rethink of Live Picture’s broadly similar Reality Studio of 1998, which was too complex to win many users. MGI Software bought Live Picture’s software range and released the excellently upgraded PhotoVista 2.0 panorama program in the autumn. Now it has released Interactive Imaging Studio, which is much easier to use than Reality Studio as it drops the complex audio/ video/animation layers. It’s far more expensive than Reality Studio (which finished below £100), but it does include a mid-range copy of the Zoom Server (also ex-Live Picture) for delivering zoomable multi-resolution image files at high speed over the Web. Scene authoring The interactive-scene authoring package, called PhotoVista Virtual Tour, lets you set up scenes of linked panoramas and objects. It runs on any Windows from 95 on and comprises three applications: PhotoVista, 3D Objects and Virtual Tour Maker. Each can create and save interactive items that can be used independently or together. The feature set is basically the same as VR Toolbox’s VR Worx 2.0. PhotoVista 2.0 is the stitcher, which imports a series of photographs taken by rotating a camera on the spot, and blends them into a seamless panorama. An on-screen panorama looks like a normal image, except that dragging left or right within the picture makes it rotate through anything up to a complete circle. Images are zoomable. MGI’s PhotoVista 2.0 is probably the best stitcher on the market. It’s particularly forgiving of slight mis-matches between images that can fool other stitchers. It’s also very easy to use. The program supports about 100 popular camera/lens combinations, with a menu that lets you fine tune these or create new ones if needed. Output can be BMP or JPEG for print, or FlashPix for incorporation into Virtual Tour scenes. You can also output directly for the Web: PhotoVista generates HTML code with Java that accesses the image so a browser plug-in isn’t required: this can be pasted straight into an HTML page. A version for use with a plug-in can be made if required. 3D Objects creates the impression of a 3D model by assembling a series of photographs taken from all around an object into a series of movie frames. Dragging left-right or up-down makes the object rotate – and some images will zoom too. Photographing the objects is the biggest effort: it usually requires putting them on a tripod and rotating them while taking multiple photographs. If you move the camera up and down as well you get multiple rows, which let you view the object from above and below. Again, the application is simple to use: you import your photographs and define how they are arranged in columns and rows. Then you mask off the backgrounds – 3D Objects can use a chroma key to delete plain coloured backdrops, or it can automatically remove a common background (based on a master image without the object). Another adjustment lets you re-centre images so they rotate smoothly. Object movies can be tested and adjusted before final output. You can save as FPX, JPEG, AVI or GIF, with an IVR container file to provide interactivity. While Flashpix high-res zooming gives impressive results, the penalty seems to be pixellation while rotating the image. This is annoying and inferior to QuickTime VR objects. The Virtual Tour Maker application is very easy to use. You import all of the panorama and object items you want to make up into a scene, choose one as the start point, then draw hotlinks on each panorama to link to other panoramas, objects or URLs. You can define entry and exit views and transitions, plus on-screen mouseover labels for each hotspot. Tours can be previewed and adjusted before final publication as a group of related files. There’s a wizard helper to take you through the publication steps. Tours can be exported with JPEG images, which work with any Web server, or with Zoom/Flashpix variable-resolution images that must be delivered by a Zoom server. A Zoom tour on the Web appears as Java views in an HTML page and no browser plug-ins are needed, though ActiveX and plug-in versions can be served if needed. The Zoom Server can run on Windows NT4, Windows 2000, Sun Solaris 2.6 or Red Hat Linux 6.2 servers. The Zoom Server supplied is basically the same as the separately sold Zoom Imaging Server Small Business Edition, which can serve 175 images at once. There are five other editions, mostly differing by the number of images handled. A free ten-image developer server can be used for testing. All the components of the Virtual Tour Maker are good and easy to use. The really time-consuming part is capturing all the images that make up the panoramas and objects in the first place. The Zoom Image Server is a decent background program that’s easy to set up and maintain. It’s expensive though – the full-blown Enterprise unlimited edition costs £30,000. I’d have thought that fewer people would need the server than the authoring software, so there could be scope for separate packages, but MGI disagrees. VR Toolbox VR Worx does more or less the same thing for a lot less, though if you want the advantages of high resolution, fast-downloading Zoom imaging, the MGI Interactive Imaging Suite is the only way to get it.