Having covered tablet reading for a while now, I’m rarely excited by a magazine’s digital bells and whistles anymore. There are only so many times a publisher can insert a video into an iPad issue and claim to be innovative. Yet this month’s digital edition cover of National Geographic magazine truly took me by surprise.
The February cover features a photo of the ruins of Leptis Magna, one of Libya’s ancient Roman cities. By tapping on the cover, readers can then explore the ruins. But the exploration doesn’t happen through an article, or photos, or even a video. Instead, it’s a 360-degree virtual view of the historic site. It feels as if you’re standing in the middle of the ruins, using your iPad to see the area around you. And the view changes as you manipulate the iPad. Move your iPad to your left, and you see what would appear to your left if you were standing at Leptis Magna in real life.
For National Geographic’s creative director Bill Marr, Libya’s ancient sites provided the perfect opportunity to unveil this new camera technology. “It really lets readers view the entire place on his/her own. It’s a great freedom to explore these ancient civilizations and ruins,” he said. “With Libya, you can’t go to the country very easily. And that makes the cover all the more fascinating.”
The 360-degree cover was made with technology developed by National Geographic innovation fellow Corey Jaskolski, who specializes in creating technologies to explore some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jaskolski’s spherical image camera system consists of a camera on a rotating head that is fully controlled by a computer system. The camera takes a high-res photo and then pans until it has images all around the circle. It then tilts up and does it again. The result is hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of still images stitched together to form the 360 effect. The whole process takes around 12 minutes.
The final product is sensitive to the iPad’s internal gyrometer and will adapt to the movements of the device. What’s also impressive is that the final file size is 20MB, smaller than most videos National Geographic puts in their iPad edition. Similar technology to create the 360 views exists, but Jaskolski’s is one of the least bulky and most user-friendly, which means it can be taken into the difficult environments that National Geographic photographers frequent.
Jaskolski believes that these new type of virtual images are particularly powerful in a world where we’re inundated with photographs.
“Thirty years ago, if you saw an iconic picture in National Geographic, you might linger on it or physically share it. Now, it seems like 5 billion people have cameras. I watch my nieces rip though photos on iPad and they spend .4 seconds on each one. There’s no impact. If you’re not spending time with the photos and not sharing them, then how can we as an organization achieve our goal of conservation? How can we make people stop and care about the world? This technology stops people for more than .4 seconds.”
As the spherical camera technology becomes more advanced, we can expect to see more of these virtual photographs in National Geographic‘s digital editions. One new advance will allow photographers to take the 360-degree view instantaneously, which lets them capture busy street scenes or landscapes with people in them. Jaskolski’s team is even developing the capability to film 360-degree videos. In the foreseeable future, you’ll be able to virtually travel with a National Geographic team to the top of Mount Everest or to the bottom of the ocean.
For now, National Geographic has first rights to Jaskolski’s camera system. But Jaskolski predicts that within a year, other easily-deployable camera systems will crop up, which means more publications and advertisers can start experimenting with the technology. We might begin seeing 360-degree panoramas of hotel rooms in digital editions of travel magazines, or iPad car advertisements that you let virtually explore the car’s interior.
But for Jaskolski, the technology is not just about adding a new bell and whistle to a magazine’s iPad edition. “National Geographic is putting a lot of dollars into new technologies,” he said. “And it’s not just how to make the digital edition cool, it’s how you make conservation cool. It’s how you make people wanting to preserve historical sites cool.”
Photo credit: National Geographic/Ann Jaskolski