Sunday, October 19, 2008


While I've been creating panoramas by stitching multiple digital images together for several years now, I've always wanted a robotic panorama head to ease the workload. The image pictured above is actually comprised of 44 individual images, four rows of seven images. As you can imagine, moving a tripod head manually while ensuring that the spacing is correct and not missing a 'frame' is cumbersome, tedious, and very error-prone... and you don't realize you've made an error until later when processing the images. Don't ask me how I know this!, a spinoff from the Global Connection Project project from Carnegie-Mellon University, aims to provide a site where individuals can use high-resolution images from multi-row panoramas to explore distant parts of the world. The hope is to bring people together.

In order to facilitate creation of multi-row panoramas by the average photographer, CMU worked with an external company to create the Gigapan robotic panorama head. Thru the miracle of modern microprocessor technology, and a couple of stepper motors, this mount allows the user to use a small point-and-shoot digital camera, using the viewfinder to indicate the camera's field of view, identifying the upper-left and lower-right corners of the desired panorama. Once this is done, the user presses a button and the Gigapan robot head automatically starts taking pictures, continuing without human input until the job is done. also supplies a free panoramic stitching software package that automates the creation of a single, huge image from a series of individual images, and will also upload the resultant image to the website.

Now, the creation of a robotic panorama head isn't news; units like the Peace River Systems' PixOrb and the Rodeon VR have been around for years... but we're talking anywhere from $4000 for the Rodeon to over $11,000 for the PixOrb. Definitely out of the reach of the average photographer. The Gigapan head goes for under $300, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Although it is a solidly build product, it is sized for point-and-shoot digital cameras. The unit is physically too small to handle a dSLR with a long telephoto lens (although the image show above, of Seattle, was taken on a Gigapan using my Sigma SD14 and 70-200/2.8 lens, a heavy combination that really overpowered the unit and required me to physically assist the head in order to prevent the stepper motors from 'slipping' due to the weight, missing 'steps' and thus getting out of sync). Gigasystems, the spinoff company that was formed to market the Gigapan robot head, is planning to eventually introduce a larger, more powerful head suitable for dSLRs and 'bridge' digital cameras.

However, all is not lost. I've picked up an Orion TeleTrack astronomical alt-azimuth robotic mount, designed to support computer control of a telescope, and am working on a control unit that will give this much more robust mount the same capabilities of the Gigapan, with dSLRs and long, heavy, powerful, sharp lenses. Some European hackers have adapted this head to work with homebrew software on mobile Linux devices, but I'm currently building a self-contained controller that will mimic the functionality of the Gigapan. The goal is to create a self-contained unit that has the same ease of use, while supporting a quality camera at an affordable price (well under $1,000).

I'll post more information as my project progresses. Until then, feel free to look at

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