Ready for Takeoff: A New Panoramic Camera Ball

PHOTO: Panonos Throwable Panoramic Ball Camera photographing Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Inset: Design prototype.

Forget pressing a shutter button. With the Panono, you can take a picture simply by throwing it up in the air. Fitted with 36 cameras, it contains a device that measures the launch acceleration to calculate when it is at its highest point and barely moving. At that point, all 36 cameras are triggered and a panoramic image captured from every possible angle -- including of the photographer, who will most likely be pictured with arms outstretched, waiting to catch the camera when it falls back down.

While it's already possible to take semi-automatic horizontal, 360 degree images with many smartphones, the Panono is billed as the "first 360 x 360 degree panoramic camera."

"Snapshots only show what's in front of the photographer," says the creator of Panono, Jonas Pfeil. "Our throwable camera captures an entire scene, a bit like Google Street View, but from an aerial perspective."

Pfeil came up with this innovative idea on a visit to Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago in the South Pacific, while he was studying in New Zealand. Awed by the natural beauty of the islands, he wished he had a camera that could take a fully automatic panoramic image. Back in Germany, he developed the idea for his college thesis at the Technical University in Berlin, developing a prototype that was originally the size of a handball, weighed 750 grams (26 ounces) and was encased in green foam for protection.

Two Trends, One Product

In September 2012, the design brought Pfeil the German government's ICT innovation award, worth €30,000 ($40,000). The demo video on YouTube attracted over 3 million clicks in a matter of days. Now, just over a year later, the finished product can be ordered via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for €499. Within 3 days of the launch of the campaign, it has already raised more than $200,000 of the $900,000 target he needs to put it into production. The company now consists of three founding members -- friends from university -- while Ralf Coenen, former head of camera company Leica, is acting as logistics adviser. Pfeil is hoping to manufacture around 1,500 cameras overall.

In the meantime, the prototype has shrunk to half its original size and now weighs about 300 grams. With 36 cameras, each with 2 megapixels of resolution, it takes a 72 megapixel, high-resolution full-spherical image that can be wirelessly downloaded to an iOS or Android smartphone or Panono's cloud service to be viewed in its full spherical glory.

The Panono brings together two trends: The first is 'camera tossing' -- the slightly odd hobby of throwing an ordinary camera into the air in the hope of producing an artistic-looking image (and catching the camera again), and the second is the time-honored tradition of panoramic photography. First developed in the 19th century, it has lost none of its popularity, continuing to evolve and being practiced these days by world-class artists, such as Yadegar Asisi. Robert Barker, a British pioneer of the technique, described its effect as "la nature à coup d'oeil" ("nature at a glance"). Artist David Hockney has also explored photography, making composite images of Polaroid photographs as well as photo collages.

It seems there is an abiding human fascination with the idea of being all-seeing. In the late 18th century, the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a "panopticon," a type of institutional building in which a guard could observe inmates without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology, a giant with 100 eyes.

"Still Work To Be Done"

With this, the panoptical perspective -- until now reserved for only wealthy major artists or the Google Street View camera -- has now shrunk to hobby size. The "Theta" camera from Ricoh, for example, has two fish-eye lenses facing opposite directions. Although the image quality leaves something to be desired, the Theta can still capture good landscape shots.

The ball camera seems to have similar weaknesses. Stitching the images together has improved immensely since 2011, but there is "still work to be done," Pfeil warns on Indiegogo. "At the moment, we are about 70 percent there, with manual adjustments needed here and there."

While indoors or in the case of dim lighting, he recommends mounting the camera on a stick and holding it in the air because throwing it could result in blurry images. Unlike the Theta, the Panono's bird's-eye perspective creates actual spherical photos -- 360 degrees both vertical and horizontal -- because it doesn't have to remain stationary, but seems to float in the air instead.

"Imagine I'm with friends on the beach and one person is barbecuing, another is surfing, and one is flying a kite … the Panono camera makes it possible to capture everything in every direction in a very high-resolution image," says Pfeil. "People don't get as tense. Instead, they laugh when they see that I'm throwing the ball camera in the air."

What other uses could there be for the ball camera? Real estate agents could document an atrium or courtyard with a single throw. Police could gain a quick overview of a demonstration. Students could take a class photo.

Still, for now, the quality of the photos remains distorted and unsatisfactory, and likely lacks the sense of reality required by most hobby photographers.

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