Using Android's "photosphere" (part of the new Google Camera) you turn your smartphone to take a photos in every direction, and then it stitches them together into a 360 degree panorama or "photosphere" which you can then interact with and/or upload to Google maps.
The Problem: Parallax Error
Unfortunately, as you're spinning in a circle, and pointing your camera up or down, it gets very difficult to keep your camera lens at a fixed point. Impossible in fact. This introduced "parallax error" which can ruin the stitching and affect the quality of your final photosphere.
Because of how parallax works, the effect is worst with close objects - so if you're taking a photosphere of far away scenery it might be fine, but if there is any tree branch, or chair, or even the ground, which comes too close - you will probably get a funky photosphere.
A tripod can help, but it's not very portable, and unless you pay top dollar for one that can rotate around an arbitrary axis, your lens will not stay centered when you tilt, and the tripod is a pain to carry around. On this page I have a cheap way you can reduce parallax using a tennis ball and a string. It's a fun little project I call it the "tennis ball photosphere helper". And sure it looks a little dorky, but it gets the job done, and you can make your own very quickly!
Build Your Own "Poor Man's Tennis Ball PhotoSphere Helper"
Here is what you'll need:
- An tennis ball - preferably one without much fur
- Some string - fishing line would do as well
- A milk bottle cap
- A bread knife, nail scissors, box cutters, permanent marker - for cutting
- A tray so the fur doesn't go everywhere.
Rather than explain, the steps, the best way to learn is watch my youtube instructional video.
The video explains better, but basically you want:
- Cut a out a small circle at the front for the camera to look out of and keep the circular "end piece" that you cut off.
- Cut a slit so that your smartphone can sit upside-down with it's lens resting in the dead center of the tennis ball. (the video shows how to mark accurate cutting lines)
- Check that your phone can take picture out the front - you may need to trim the hole wider.
- Use some nail scissors to drill a tiny hole into the bottom of the tennis ball, another though the end piece, and one in the side of the bottle cap.
- Take an 8 foot length of string (should be taller than you are), thread it twice through the end piece (the end piece will be in the middle), then thread one end into the little hole in the tennis ball and the other end into your bottle cap. Tie a knock in either side so the three pieces stay connected.
And you are ready!
Using the Device by Itself
To use the device by itself, hold the tennis ball at chin height, and let the cap fall to the floor. Adjust the height of the end piece so it hovers about 2 inches above the bottle cap when you stand. Start the photosphere application (on your Galaxy Nexus, select the camera, then hold down the camera icon and chose the photosphere icon). Turn your phone upside-down and insert into the tennis ball with the camera centered and looking out the hole. Take your first picture, and then rotate around to the left or right to get the first row. Make sure the end piece is always dangling perfectly over the bottle cap when you take a shot. The string is essentially keeping your camera at a fixed point. Tilt up and take the top rows (you may have to squat and look awkward for the directly up shot (or if it's sky don't really bother). Take the lower rows. For the very last shot, directly down, you should get your camera approximately in place, but will probably want your feet out of the shot, and the string out of the way too. The video shows what this looks like nicely.
Click the "stop" button and wait for your photosphere to process. The capturing should take about 90 seconds, and hopefully the processing will be *relatively* fast because the stitching won't have much trouble.
Using the Device on a Tripod
One neat feature of this tennis ball is that I also had tripods in mind. All tripods have a small 1/4 inch screw which pokes a small way out the top and if you drill a hole (using the nail scissors) into the bottle cap the right size, the bottle cap will screw right on it. You can then sit the tennis ball inside the (upside-down) bottle cap and can rotate left/right and up/down without the lens in an (almost) perfectly fixed spot. Sadly, the down-most shots may capture your bottle cap and/or top-of-the-tripod-platform, so to help reduce that I cut a little slit in one side of the bottle cap. You could also try a smaller/taller bottle cap, but my strategy so far has been to:
- Make sure the phone is facing away from the handle, and actually use the handle for all left/right motion.
- For the the bottom row and vertically down shot I pick up the tripod and angle the whole thing down so there is no tripod or bottle cap in my shot. You could also remove the tripod and/or switch to the ball and string method, but that gets a bit tricky.
Best of luck if you try using a tripod! Fortunately the lower most shots are easy.
If interested, you can get pretty cheap tripods off Amazon. Here are the two I show off in my video:
- Zeikos ZE-TR101A 72-Inch Photo / Video Tripod - $30 off Amazon - and at 72 inches it's pretty big - good for tall people!
- Ravelli APLT2 50" Light Weight Aluminum Tripod - ~$22 off Amazon - much lighter weight, so better for travelling.
If you decide you like carrying a tripod around, you may also consider a device which can lock your phone to your tripod.... it will introduce some parallax tilting up/down, but if you're outdoors and scenery is far off then you won't notice. Here's such a device:
- Square Jellyfish Smartphone Spring Tripod Mount - $18 off amazon - grips your phone (upside-down works best) and screws into any standard tripod.
For a compromise on weight, they also have hiking sticks that server as a mono-pod, so that might work too!
Any Surface as a Tripod
Hopefully one of the cool things about the bottle cap and tennis ball acting as a "ball and socket" is that really you can rest the bottle cap (or even just tennis ball) on top of anything solid.... say the back of a stool, a table (for a cool low-to-the-ground-shot), fence-post, railing.... or your friend's head. I'm especially interested to see some interesting shots taken from the ground and unusual surfaces. :)
About the Software
PhotoSphere - is now part of the Google "Camera" application which should be the default camera device on any Android phone 4.4.4 (KitKat) or greater. Simply open the Camera App, then swipe right and chose the PhotoSphere icon. PhotoSphere camera mode makes it easy to take 360 panoramas, and upload them to google maps or embed on your website.
To find out about the software, how to use it, and its current state go to https://developers.google.com/photo-sphere/. PhotoSphere is also available to iPhone if you download the free Google Camera application from the iStore here.
This project was a fun little distraction for me. Let me know if you build one and take it out hiking.... or perhaps you decide that you want to go the full tripod route! Let me know if you find any fun variations or your own invention. I've been curious to try a basketball where the phone fits inside fully (maybe a bit cumbersome) or a tennis ball with a fishing line (for ultra-light weight) - I just haven't had the time yet! :)
Hope you have fun with it too, and don't hesitate to email!
- Photosphere website - visit for recent updates.