Adventure and wildlife photographer and author Scott Highton is probably one of the most experienced virtual reality (VR) photographers in the U.S. He’s been involved with VR since the early 1990s when he was the first independent photographer contracted by Apple Computer to put QuickTime VR to the test, as well as serving as an early consultant and contract photographer during development of iPIX technology.
Highton explained that he has spent the past 2½ years shooting more than 200 high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic views throughout the park along with ambient audio. The panoramas are all captioned, with maps and geographical indexes for navigation, and packaged in a beautiful interactive website along with links to a variety of resources for park visitors, including hiking, lodging and transportation information.
“I've always loved Yosemite. I've lived near it for the better part of my adult life and it certainly seemed like a great subject for a good VR tour,” said Highton. “But it's an ongoing project, so it will continue to be expanded over the coming years.”
“VR has gone through a number of resurgences over the years. This latest one has gone on for four or five years,” he added. “But it's always had some issues. And one of those is the general quality of the content that's being produced. So, having worked on some good projects and seeing lots and lots of really bad VR done, even today, I decided it was important to actually produce one that was worthy of the technology.”
Highton relies largely on Nikon D800 D-SLR cameras and uses full-frame fisheye lenses to do the panoramas. His field gear also includes Nodal Ninja camera poles to mount the camera in difficult and often dangerous positions.
“Basically, the process is, I shoot a series of images around in a circle, so the camera is anchored to a fixed point and rotated around, whether it's on a pole or a tripod,” he explained. “Usually I do it in two different rows, one with the camera tilted upward and the other with the camera tilted downward, which captures 360- by 180-degree views, which are all individual images that are then stitched together using VR stitching software.”
For stitching images together, he uses PTGui from New House Internet Services. Those stitched panoramas then have to be color balanced and retouched, (for example, taking out the tripod or camera support gear). Garden Gnome Software’s Pano2VR helps provide the interactive links between images, letting you jump around this virtual world.
“There's an incredible amount of postproduction work that has to go into it,” he explained. “I think that's why a lot of these projects are not done terribly well, because there’s so much work to produce good quality content.”
Highton, who wrote the 2010 book Virtual Reality Photography: Creating Panoramic and Object Images – a comprehensive reference book on the art and techniques of virtual reality photography, explained that he came from a filmmaking background. Earlier in his career he shot documentaries for PBS, Nature and Discovery Channel, including a lot of underwater and wildlife camerawork.
He stressed that even a panoramic VR “still” image should be considered a moving image, and that sound has a huge role to play in moving images. He explained that having a soundtrack, or at least ambient audio, is a very effective way to immerse viewers and give them the sense of actually being there in a VR scene. “I think a lot of VR producers overlook that. When you're looking at an image in a half dome or something like that, being able to hear the environment that you’re standing in is just as effective as being able to see it. And so having that combination I think is extremely important.”
Overall, Highton reported that time and cost have been the biggest challenges in creating Virtual Yosemite.
“I do go to all these places to shoot. It does take a lot of time, planning the coverage of what parts of the park and how much I can I can accomplish, whether I get one Panorama on a hike in a day, or whether it has to be a multiple day thing. Just the logistics of getting myself there and being safe as I'm doing things is a challenge.”
Indeed, safety is always the top priority on his mind.
“Some of these panoramas are actually looking over the precipice of a waterfall or a cliff. And so I have to make sure the design is safe and get the camera in position effectively so that it can be rotating without falling or endangering anybody,” he said. “There is certainly a challenge there, which has been fun to do, but I do need to be conscious of that at all times. There are lots of things that can go wrong and so I want to make sure that I’m not risking anybody's safety or damaging the environment that I'm shooting.”
Highton himself is a skilled mountain climber, having spent 15 years on a mountain rescue team. He’s also an accomplished underwater photographer, having been the first to try out QuickTime VR and iPIX underwater.
In fact, one of the earliest photos in the Yosemite collection was done in the late-90s, when Highton scaled the park’s famous El Capitan mountain to shoot climbers who pitched their bivouacs on the sheer cliff face, hundreds of feet in the air.
“I'm at the age now where I'm not [climbing] regularly,” he said. “I would do that sort of thing again, but it would have to be done in a certain way. And there are other routes up there. You can get up to the top on a lift and go down rather than having to climb up. So there are lots of ways to get the kinds of shots that I like to do that don't require, so much technical climbing skill anymore.”
From the outset, Highton took on this project as a labor of love. He said that it’s entirely self-driven and “something that I felt needed to be done, just because I wanted to make sure that there was some good VR content out there that would show what the potential of VR really is.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of people and a lot of companies are producing sort of ‘sample VR’ content and saying, ‘Here's what we might be able to do for your company if you gave us enough money.’ But they never really produce anything that's substantial. It's just all these little tidbits,” he said. “And so unfortunately, the quality of much of the VR work we're seeing today is really pretty poor. So, I felt it was important for somebody who really started out when consumer VR did to at least make one example of something that showed us its true potential. And I think we've done that with this project, and it will continue to evolve and develop as we go on, so it will just get better.”
As for the future of VR, Highton admitted that he may be in the minority on this, but he believes that while Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) are fine for games and augmented reality, the future is in big, but still personal screens in the home.
“I just don't see [HMDs] as a great future for showing the potential of VR,” he said. “What I do see as a better future is, is the large-screen experience. I encourage people looking at this tour or any of my other work to view it on a as large a screen as they can in full-screen mode.”
He compares HMDs to snorkeling or SCUBA diving masks. “It’s a big thing that's stuck to the front of your face that allows you to see something that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise and allows you to experience the underwater world in a way that we can't normally do. But as soon as you get out of the water that's usually the first thing you do is to remove that mass from your face. It's annoying, and I think we're doing that with these Head-Mounted Displays in VR as well.”
Overall, Highton hopes Virtual Yosemite will be a valuable tool for the four million annual visitors to the park, not only for planning their visits, but for sharing immersive experiences of the locations they visited with family and friends afterward. He also hopes that VR will be able to help people who may never be to get to Yosemite to at least get a good taste of the experience.
“My parents now are at an age where it's difficult for them to travel,” he concluded. “There is probably no way that they will ever get to Yosemite themselves, but they can see its beauty and see what I appreciate about it through a VR tour like this.”
Highton stressed that the National Parks Service and the local concessionaires do a tremendous job of managing and protecting Yosemite, along with nonprofit organizations like the Yosemite Conservancy, which raises money to maintain the park. During the most recent Federal government shutdown, local communities organized a grass-roots effort to collect garbage and maintain the park while the NPS employees were furloughed.