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RealViz is best known for its professional-quality tools for integrating 3D elements into movies. However, its Stitcher software is a high-grade still-imaging tool for creating panoramas from multiple images. Results can be output as a super-wide print, or put onto a Web page or CD to form immersive QuickTime VR MOV, Shockwave, or VRML images. The picture is undistorted, but can be interactively rotated through a complete circle. It has movie applications – Stitcher was used for backdrop effects in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and 28 Days Later, and it can create high-res environment maps for 3D work.

Stitcher works with conventional cameras and lenses. The software takes a sequence of overlapping photographs, and blends them together to give a single seamless image. A typical 28mm lens on a 35mm film camera needs at least ten portrait-format images to capture a 360-degree circle with sufficient overlap. Digital cameras rarely have wider lenses than that, though a few are appearing for interchangeable-lens SLR models. If you shoot three rows of images with the camera pointing up, down and horizontal, this captures a complete sphere that shows floor to ceiling, or grass to clouds.

Originally developed for Windows NT, Stitcher was ported to Mac OS X and Windows XP with version 3.0. The real breakthrough came with Stitcher 3.5 18 months ago, an excellent product that could create both strip panoramas and fully spherical cubic projections.

The new Stitcher 4 is an incremental upgrade that largely concentrates on improving workflow. Mac OS X and Windows versions are sold separately.

The user interface has been improved, including better organization of preferences and properties menus. The main operations are the same as before. You first import a sequence of overlapping photographs into the Image Strip at the bottom of the screen, then drag them one by one into the main Stitching Window, aligning them as closely as you can by eye. The software automatically finds the best fit and blend when you select Stitch. The program is smart enough to calibrate itself to the lens you used, with an additional menu option that works out a correction factor for the distortions of ultra-wide angle lenses.

There’s now a sensible and clear arrangement of tabs for the various stages of final rendering. The Render controls include a Best Render option that sorts out the maximum quality (uninterpolated) resolution available from the combination of images you’re using. Alternatively there’s a slider and numeric boxes to set your own resolution. QuickTime VR output can be previewed and adjusted interactively. The rendering process has new interpolation options:nearest, bicubic, Mitchell, and Lanczos.

Parameters from previous projects can now be saved and applied to new ones, and simple cylindrical panoramas have been beefed up with automatic alignment and crop options.

There’s a clearer Stencil Wizard menu. This lets you move through the individual images to set up Stencils, which mask off parts of overlapping images that might otherwise not align properly. You can edit individual images from within Stitcher by launching them into Photoshop or other editing software, and then automatically re-importing them after they’re saved. There’s a menu to create hotspot areas with links to other files or URLs. RealViz sells the separate SceneWeaver (for about £100) to create interactive Web site tours from these images.

Although the software is obviously vital, the really important part of the process is shooting the initial photographs. You need to align the images as closely as possible and shoot everything with identical exposure settings. It’s possible to hold the camera by hand, but you really need a tripod and a purpose-made panoramic head accessory, to rotate the camera around the optical centre of its lens.

If you want fully spherical output from Stitcher, you need to shoot three rows of images, one with the camera pointed horizontally, one pointing up 45 degrees and the other down 45 degrees. A pair of shots pointing directly up and down close the gaps at the ‘poles,’ – the south pole shot is taken without the tripod in place so it doesn’t appear in the final image.

Kaidan’s KiWi-L is the lowest cost pano head at around £100. It’s intended to produce horizontal strip panoramas up to 360 degrees. This can be used for three-row sets simply by pointing the camera up or down, and Stitcher is able to align them. However, Kaidan also makes the pricier QuickPan III with a dedicated spherical alignment bracket for £425.

One of the biggest Web uses of panoramas is property tours, dominated by the iPix system (www.ipix.com), which creates spherical images from just two 185 degree fisheye lens photographs. Stitcher cannot join pairs of fisheye shots, apparently to avoid clashing with iPix’s patents. Shooting and assembling Stitcher’s spheres from 30 individual images is time-consuming, with more risk of clouds or people moving in between shots, but it gives far more detail than fisheyes because you’re working with vastly more pixels.

However, RealViz has now got together with iPix to offer a hybrid system. The brand new iPix Interactive Studio software has a plug-in facility, and both RealViz and Photovista developer Iseemedia (www.iseemedia.com) have announced support. RealViz will produce a Stitcher plug-in, apparently to assemble multiple images and output them in the iPix spherical format, but full details and price haven’t yet been revealed. iPix now charges $1,000 for the initial year’s use (with unlimited image output), then $800 per annum after that. By comparison, the standard Stitcher 4 only costs £345 and its output is free and unlimited.

Stitcher 4 is relatively expensive in a market that includes some rivals priced below £100. However, the accuracy of Stitcher is excellent and it remains the best on the market.