QTVR takes a giant leap forward

In the world of the World Wide Web, the award for "next best thing to being there" usually goes to the QuickTime Virtual Reality panorama, or QTVR.

The immersive qualities of QTVRs will be familiar to most web surfers, but these interactive vistas are spread pretty thin across the web, and those that are available are too often of marginal photographic quality and/or disappointingly small size. Fullscreen QTVR has set out to overcome all three of these negatives, and, has succeeded. So if the idea of exploring the world -and beyond- from your desktop appeals to you, Fullscreen QTVR would like a few minutes of your time.

Drawing on the resources and archives of two already existing QTVR websites (VRMAG and panoramas.dk), the Fullscreen collection begins with a subset of more than 100 files - from more than 26 countries - gathered by Panoramas, one of the two websites mentioned above. The variety of subject matter available in this opening collection can be deduced from a sampling that includes a UNESCO-protected church in Cyprus, Antarctica, Mars, the Taj Mahal, Saint Mark's Square in Venice, Times Square in New York, and the deck of a brigantine circumnavigating Australia. There's also a good selection of subjects you might not expect to find even in such a complete library, such as an underwater panorama of a World War II shipwreck off Bali and, believe it or not, the inside of a dental patient's mouth.

As the site name promises, all the QTVRs here fill the browser's screen. (At least they do on my screen, and I'm guessing that there are more files to accommodate larger monitors.) Each panorama opens into its own window, with a few paragraphs of information about the location, complete with an instant link to Alta-Vista's Babel Fish for those who may wish to translate the contents, and a chronological listing of additional panoramas.dk offerings. (No descriptions of subject matter in this list - there's no room - but those who'd rather not explore blindly can always return to the thumbnail-rich Panoramas index pages.)

Panoramas also has a series of themed collections, dedicated to particular topics. Examples include 2 files depicting the interior and exterior of a Mercedes-Benz, 16 exploring the Vatican's Basilicas, 6 of a 1930s wind tunnel, and 9 of the UCI Mountain Bike & Trial World Championship 2003. Unlike the panoramas.dk set, these presentations can have as many as three links related to each subject.

Naturally, even though this site appears to be on a fast server, a full screen QTVR takes a few seconds to download, so if you start panning before the file is complete, you'll temporarily encounter either a blurred image or holodeck-style grid that will make Star Trek fans feel right at home. The images are well worth the wait though, both technically and aesthetically, and with the high quality and varied subject matter, I eventually found myself thinking of these photographs as a 21st century version of the Kodak Coloramas that once hung in Grand Central Station.

And while all the panoramas are equal in size, there are minor variations in presentation. In addition to the typical, horizontal 360 degree panoramic files, many QTVRs include spherical (or in QuickTime's terminology, "Cubic") coverage. In addition, some files include sound, and some of these even incorporate a stereo element that shifts playback from one speaker to the other as you pan.

The two collaborators' own websites are also worth exploring if you still haven't had your fill of spinning in place. VRMAG's content includes detailed articles that will be of interest to those who like to look behind the scenes, while panoramas.dk offers files too new to have made their way to the Fullscreen site (such as a late March anti-war protest in Trafalgar Square), and links to even more QTVR sites - including a current effort to record all of UNESCO's World Heritage sites. (Far from complete - but a fair start on a worthy project.)

There's not much that can be said against Fullscreen. I didn't always get the advertised audio background files, and image quality does vary a bit, but every panorama I viewed was as good as or better than 90% of the QTVRs available online. And even in the virtual world, this may well be the only site where you can move from beneath the waters off Australia, to the top of Mount Everest, take a side trip to Mars, and finish up in the middle of New Year's celebrations in Times Square, all from a single base of operations. A desk-bound website reviewer could almost think he had a life.

Fullscreen QTVR can be found at http://www.fullscreenqtvr.com/.

Some updates

A pair of updates to add at this point, related to a fairly recent, and a long past review. The first connects all the way back to 1999, and QuickBrowse - a metabrowser that gathers and consolidates a collection of favorite websites onto a single page for one-stop perusal. Well since then, Marc Fest, the brains behind the invention, has created an OnlineHomeBase (with such features as Notepads, online collaboration, and file storage), an email-based service to randomly remind you to tell your friends you're thinking about them, and most recently, Trackle.

This latest addition to Fest's stable will be of interest to anyone who finds themselves constantly returning to blogs and other websites to see if any of the content has changed. Trackle checks sites at user-defined intervals (from 1 to 24 hours) and automatically sends emails containing new content (complete with hyperlinks) from all of the sites being monitored. (Unlike RSS feeds, Trackle includes new content in its entirety, rather than just the first few lines.)

Trackle is a paid service ($2 per month) but there's a 14-day free trial for the curious.

The second development is related to BBC7 radio, and it's unique playlist of streaming children's programming, radio drama, and classic British comedy. Only available in real time when reviewed in January, specific programs could be impossible to catch if your work or sleep schedule didn't coincide with your favorite shows' time slot. A few months later, a "Listen Again" link has been added to take surfers to a week-long archive of on-demand programs, so you now you can listen to the Twilight Zone or the Goon Show whenever the mood suits. (At least within seven days of original broadcast.)

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