A virtual tour is a form of interactive photography that allows the user to explore a location digitally, usually on a website or app.
The first virtual tour was designed by British engineer Colin Johnson and was first publicly experienced by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1994 she opened up a 1550’s depiction of Dudley Castle in the Dudley Castle Visitor Centre in North England. Since then they have quickly infiltrated the leisure, property, and tourism industries and are now conquering the digital world supporting classic photography with interactive experiences.
Many earlier examples were produced in the form of a video and simply consisted of a camera man walking around a location. With the introduction of new technology the interactive panorama has come to replace more linear experiences whereby a space is filmed using still imagery before being pieced together using computer software. This 360 panorama or ‘scene’ is then stitched together with other scenes to form a tour. Tours allow the user to dictate the scene and perspective, usually by clicking and dragging on the photo itself. Navigation techniques between scenes vary from one tour to another but usually take the form of thumbnails or ‘hotspot’ links on the tours themselves.
A scene can be made by the stitching together of any kind of image as long as they are taken from the same perspective however using a standard sized lens would mean that a user would have to take upwards of 40 images to accurately cover a 360 by 180 degree angle. To combat this professionals use a variety of wide angled lenses to reduce the amount of images that need to be stitched together. These can vary from a standard wide angled lens to 8mm fisheye to custom built one-shot 360 degree lenses.
Because of their ability to express a space with a much greater accuracy than traditional photography virtual tours quickly became standard in the high end commercial and residential property industries. From there they quickly spread to leisure, tourism and education and now most establishments looking to show off their facilities to prospective clients invest in a virtual tour as a standard part of their marketing budget.
Today virtual tours are used for a variety of different reasons, from commercial to purely entertainment. You can now explore the new Aston Martin from inside the car, see a moving panorama of London from the London Eye and even explore the red surface of Mars from the comfort of your desk.