Some readers may remember a review of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual from Simon & Schuster which appeared in TidBITS-250, almost nine months ago. That CD-ROM was launched with some fanfare as the "first" product to use Apple’s new QuickTime VR technology; since then, however, there hasn’t been much visible motion, aside from demonstrations at trade shows, and Mac aficionados have been waiting impatiently for QuickTime VR to enter the mainstream. Where was QuickTime VR? When was Apple going to unleash this thing for real?
The wait appears to be over. Last week Apple unveiled a free QuickTime VR player and inaugurated a new Web site full of sample movies and technical info on QuickTime VR. Moreover, Apple seems to be targeting QuickTime VR solidly at the Internet audience. Though the new QTVR site is still a little incomplete, it’s a promising start on what will hopefully be an exciting journey.
The QTVR Player — The core of Apple’s free offering is the QTVR Player, an application that lets a user open and navigate through both QuickTime VR movies and normal QuickTime movies. Be sure to read Apple’s licence agreement before downloading and using the software.
The player is available in two packages, one containing just the player application and a small sample QTVR movie (first URL, about 400K) and – available only through 22-Jul-95 – a version containing both the player application and an installation of QuickTime 2.0, normally only available with System 7.5, from Apple directly, or with other commercial multimedia programs (second URL, abut 1.4 MB). The QTVR Player (and sample files) are also available on eWorld.
Apple is clearly targeting the QTVR Player at the Web community, including instructions for setting it up as a Netscape helper application. The idea is to set up the QTVR Player to handle all QuickTime movies for your Web browser. Similar steps work with MacWeb and should be applicable to other Web browsers.
Once you have the player installed, navigating through a QuickTime VR movie is surprisingly easy. When you open a QTVR movie, you’re presented with a window that looks just like any other document window containing a picture: no QuickTime controller hangs off the bottom of the image, and there are no obvious controls to manipulate the movie. To get around, simply click and hold the mouse button in the displayed image, then drag in the direction you want to go. Suddenly the displayed scene is moving, as the image in the window pans in the direction you choose to go. If your finger gets tired of pointing with the mouse, your keyboard’s arrow keys also navigate through the movie, and (surprisingly) if you press the Option key, the window will "zoom in" the display in real time, although it gets chunkier as you reach the resolution limits of the movie. Press Control to zoom you back out.
The QTVR Player lets you play movies at double size and even at full-screen, and has an option for "high quality refresh" which apparently allows the player to redraw the currently-displayed image at better resolution if you let it sit still a moment. The effect is noticeable (and significantly improves the display quality) at double-size and full-screen. The overall performance of the player application seems quite satisfactory with the QTVR movie on a local hard disk, with extremely fast response on my Quadra 650 and respectable and certainly usable performance on an LC III I had the chance to use. While the Player application is not without bugs (including a particularly ugly one involving 16-bit playback on a multiple-monitor configuration), it does seem reasonably stable.
VR Movies & Objects — QTVR movies usually consist of "nodes" and perhaps "objects." A "node" is a place where the viewer can virtually stand an inspect a scene – it’s usually the center of a room, the top of a staircase, or a similar location with an interesting view. Movies can be single-node or multi-node, and viewers can move back and forth between nodes within the movie. For example, the QTVR move of the bridge set of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Simon & Schuster’s Interactive Technical Manual contains more than half a dozen nodes, including one at the turbolift entrance, one at the engineering station, and (of course) one from the captain’s chair. When another node is in sight, the mouse cursor changes to a forward-pointing arrow, and a single click takes you to the new node. Apple has made several multi-node QTVR movies available on its site, including an interior of the House of Blues, the Tuesday Night Music Club, and the White House.
QTVR movies can also contain objects. Instead of the scene moving around the viewer, the user and turn and manipulate an animated object in three dimensions. The Star Trek Technical Manual includes a Klingon knife and a continually-blinking tricorder as QTVR objects. An obvious application of this technique would be in a virtual museum, where works of art could be viewed from a variety of angles and turned in space. Other applications spring to mind in the fields of education, engineering, and 3-D rendering, by letting people see how objects, components, and parts work and move together. I know if I’d had QTVR demonstrations of crystal lattice structures in my high school chemistry class, I’d have been a much happier person. Also, a QTVR simulation of a thunderstorm or Jupiter’s moons could be infinitely intriguing.
Lights, Camera, Action — With all this functionality, you might imagine that making a QTVR movie is a little more complicated than capturing a movie from a VCR or QuickCam, and you’d be right. Apple is in the process of putting a QTVR white paper up on its Web server that describes the technology and QTVR development process, and a good overview article on creating QuickTime VR movies appeared in the July 1995 issue of Macworld. To over-generalize, QTVR movies are stitched together from a series of still images, usually 12 or 16 for a full 360-degree shot or node. For live scenes, capturing these images can be a tricky process, involving specialized camera mountings and careful picture-taking. (I hear from one photographer who’s done a QTVR shoot that doing outdoor shots is particularly difficult due to shifts in lighting.) From 3-D rendering programs, generating the images to be stitched together can be a more precise process, although still time-consuming.
Once you have your images, movies are then "authored" to include pointers to embedded QTVR objects (if any) and pointers to other nodes that are adjacent to the current scene. Presently, QTVR development and authoring tools (including XCMDs for use in HyperCard and Director) are available only from Apple, are not very intuitive, and require a fast Mac and a lot of RAM. Apple does host courses on incorporating QTVR technology into other applications, but QTVR development resources are expensive and hard to come by. Still, that was also the case when QuickTime itself debuted; as time goes on, users can probably expect development tools to become cheaper and easier to use, and applications (especially those that do 3-D rendering) will should begin to support QTVR natively.
In Summation — If you’ve got a Web connection and time to download a few hundred kilobytes of movies, go nuts! Once you see QuickTime VR, you’ll see why people are excited about it. However, it remains to be seen whether QuickTime VR will gather the developer and application support necessary for it to become more than an expensive toy for people with high-end machines and good photographic equipment. Apple is billing QTVR as "virtual reality for the rest of us," but right now it’s only "virtual reality playback for the rest of us." Nonetheless, the potential excites me.
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