Skyrim promotional image, Bethesda Game Studios

One option for visualizing an immersive environment for others to experience (which is important to the archaeology of synthetic worlds) is to create 360º panoramic and spherical photos, which situate the viewer at the center of a space, allowing them to view the panorama or complete environment through Google Cardboard or similar inexpensive viewer paired with a smartphone. Both the panoramic and spherical VR images can be created through the same process, with the spherical image requiring two extra, simple steps.

The following proof-of-concept was created in Skyrim VR on my PlayStation 4 looking over the valley outside of the village of Rorikstead, but the steps will work should you wish to experiment on Mac or PC.

Step 1: Capture the Environment

As an archaeologist sometimes it’s important to show someone what a place looks like from where you are/were standing, whether it is outside in the world or inside a structure. Filming panoramas or 3D VR images in the natural world requires a special omnidirectional camera, although Google Cardboard Camera is now available as a free 360 VR-recording app for use with a smartphone. Unfortunately, games often limit the player to a single perspective and require the use of that viewpoint to create an image. To create a panorama or spherical image, find a place to stand, and then begin recording video (double-tap of the Share button on the PS4 controller). Slowly turn in one direction using the controller’s right stick. After completing the turn, stop recording the video, and then save it to a USB drive. Copy the MP4 video file onto a computer.

This is the original video, which was later converted into a 360 panoramic image:

Step 2: Preparing the Image Files

Navigate to a free online file conversion utility that will split the MP4 moving image into dozens (or hundreds) or JPG files. For this example, I used FileZigZag, but there are other free online tools and standalone software apps that work as well (e.g., ffmpeg). Save the JPGs to a folder.

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FileZigZag home screen

Step 3: Create the 360 panoramic image

Open Photoshop (or open source Gimp app). Note that to create a 3D VR spherical image, you need Photoshop CS6 Extended or Creative Cloud. You can create 360 panoramas in Photoshop CS5 or higher (I have CS5). Choose File, Automate…, then Photomerge…. For a 360 panoramic image, choose the Cylinder option. For a 360 spherical image, choose the Spherical option. Tick the box for “Blend images together” but leave the other boxes unticked. Click the Browse button to locate the folder containing the JPGs from Step 2 and select all the files. Click OK to begin the creation of the 360 image.

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Preparing to create a panoramic photo in Adobe Photoshop CS5

Note that the more files you have the longer the process takes to complete. Save the resulting 360 panoramic image as a JPG. This can now be uploaded to Google Cardboard or to for embedding in a blogpost, or to any other site using free WebVR technology. Anyone using a smartphone and inexpensive VR headset can access the 360 panoramic image, which places them where the archaeologist was initially, at which point they can view the image by moving their head or turning their entire body around to see more of the vista:

When I view this panorama via the free Homido Player app on my smartphone, I actually need to turn my head or rotate my body in order to view the 360 panorama, just as if I was turning to see something behind me in the natural world.

Step 3a: To enable the 360 image as Spherical 3D, once the spherical image has rendered in Photoshop, use the 3D menu option to enable the 3D functionality and then save the image as a TIFF, JPG, or PNG file, which can then be uploaded to any number of websites including WordPress blogs/sites, YouTube VR, Google Cardboard, and others for free, easy viewing.

Failed panoramic merge, which displays the landscape as a one-dimensional object

Note: Success with Photoshop’s Automerge feature varies depending on the game and the environment being filmed. I experimented with No Man’s Sky with good results right away. Skyrim, however, confused the Automerge algorithms resulting in one-dimensional Mobius strips containing images from the recorded panorama. An alternate panoramic-creation method is to place several images side-by-side in Photoshop, aligning the edges by hand, then flattening the image to save as a JPG, which is what I ultimately did for the Skyrim test:

Successful, flat panorama with hand-placed images prior to enabling with WebVR

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


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