HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — World travel to exotic destinations may have its superficial appeal, but once you factor in overbooked hotels, customs delays, lost luggage, and airline food (assuming they feed you at all), wouldn't it be better to just stay at home and see the sights online? No? All right then, what about the prohibitive costs that have would-be travelers saying "What am I, made of money?" Well, whichever category you fall into, and even for those lucky souls who will be doing a bit of globe-trotting this year and feel like engaging in some remote reconnaissance before setting out, Arounder offers impressive virtual tours of some of Europe's most popular destinations. With exceptional panoramic imagery, mood-setting audio files, and mildly educational narration, Arounder is pretty much the next best thing to being there.
A production of VRWAY, creator of VRMag (dedicated to all fields of panoramic photography), Arounder focuses on material that would interest the virtual sightseer, and tries to ensure that its images are worthy of the famous subjects being captured. (An example of this dedication to excellence graces the website's opening page, in the form of a stunning twilight view of Rome's Trevi Fountain and its surprisingly snug surroundings.) The layout of the home page is not quite as elegant as its contents and is distractingly busy, holding dozens of thumbnail images leading to various destinations, Special Projects (more later), and the home pages of tourism websites. But if you ignore the clutter and simply choose your first destination, navigation will quickly become much more orderly.
Your initial Destination can be selected from either the aforementioned thumbnail images, an interactive map, or a pull-down menu at the top of the home page, and will open into a new window containing tourism-related information and a choice of three panoramic formats through which to explore the chosen locale. Java-based and medium-resolution QuickTime panoramics (each about 400K) occupy about a quarter of an average-sized computer screen and provide navigation from one location to another through a map located alongside each image. The highest quality scenics are delivered through full-screen (side-to-side) QuickTime panoramas (about 2 MB), which also supplement the map-based navigation with thumbnails of the destination's other attractions. (Both QT options also allow navigation through the use of 'hot spots' - active areas within the images which allow the surfer to move directly from one vantage point to another.)
It's possible to change viewing formats with a click of the mouse (if, for instance, you decide that a medium-sized panorama is striking enough that you want to see it filling the screen), and you can instantly move to any other destination in the collection through a pull-down menu that's available on every page. Full-screen files don't have to be completely full-screen, either - you can resize your browser window if you want to keep part of your desktop visible and the panoramic file will adjust itself accordingly. (Though every new panorama will resize to fill the screen again.)
Many of the files are not only panoramic, but spherical captures - allowing viewers to look up and down as well as along the horizontal plane. Depending on the location, this can be a significant aid in the goal of immersing the viewer in the scenery. For example, in a rather cramped position on Athens' Acropolis Propylaia, the viewer can see not only the typical cityscape and clusters of tourists, but also scaffolding and restoration work taking place almost directly overhead. Similarly, the various cathedral tours just wouldn't be the same without a chance to inspect the architecture and decoration of the ceilings.
There are only 15 European destinations - and Hawaii - online to date, but with multiple files for each destination, you can pretty much waste as much time here as your heart desires. And if you tire of wandering the streets, the Special Projects collection offers more than 20 additional multi-file surveys of attractions ranging from the Colosseum and the home of da Vinci's "Last Supper," to the Matterhorn and the 2003 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.
Collected over a period of years, the Special Projects files have differing levels of interactive options, but the most interactive and thoroughly produced presentations are to be found in this section. The virtual tour of the "Last Supper," for example, not only uses spherical panoramas (and the image of the work in situ certainly puts it into a new perspective), but also adds audio narration, a bit of suitably reverential background music, and stills that can be enlarged and viewed in exceptional detail. Navigation between Special Projects is a bit more complicated than the Destinations though, since the former are actually components of the latter. Due to this relationship, surfers will either have to move between Projects by loading their respective City pages, or return to Arounder's home page to make direct choices.
In early 2005, the creators of Arounder promised that the collection would grow by some 65 destinations before the end of the year. That didn't happen, but those projects may still be in the works, and could surface in the near future. In the meantime, there's still plenty to see in this collection, and though there are many other sites that will provide more links and better intelligence related to the destinations you'll find here, when it comes to simulating a stroll along the Nyhavn canal in Copenhagen, or checking out the view from The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Arounder shouldn't be missed - even if you plan to spend this year's vacation in the backyard.
Arounder can be found at http://www.arounder.com/.