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Upgrade

This is my good old Mac Quadra 700. My last Mac standing, from the time I was a university student. It brings back a lot of good old memories of the impressing colorful acetates I could draw with it and project on a plain overhead projector after printing them with an HP Color Inkjet.

Then followed the impact with reality: Windows 3.11, OS/2 Warp, Windows NT and their descendants is all I met in the corporate world. But eventually they caught up to the Mac’s functionality.

Nevertheless, the Quadra 700 kept having a place in my life. In his last incarnation, it was running Debian as a test web server. It even ran MySQL and PHP – all of this on a 33MHz (I doped it’s clock) Motorola 68040. But as desktops became more powerful, the test web server ran locally.

Now that Mini-ITX, a relatively new standard for small motherboards, starts hitting the mainstream, new life may be instilled into this good old case again. It’s completely tool-less with the exception of a single screw in the middle and even that one is optional. It’s in my opinion one of the most elegant computer cases and it still looks good after all of these years.

It is getting an upgrade. It will even get the Intel Inside sticker. it will no longer have to envy the other gray boxes laying all around it. Will it still be considered an “Apple branded computer”?

My first tests with Kubuntu 8.04.1 show that KDE 4 has made giant strides. The graphic design is not yet as slick as Gnome or OS X, but it has improved – the irritating default animation effects have been replaced with more sensible ones. And KDE gives the user a lot more advanced options than Gnome. Linus Torvalds is right. I follow his advice, despite many things I did not like about KDE so far.

VR panorama on the iPhone

On Monday is the deadline for third party applications to be considered by  Apple for the officially opening of the iPhone App Store. Brian Greenstone is working to complete PangeaVR for the iPhone in time.

After Marco Giorgini and Geoffrey Morelle’s CubeWorld, this is the second VR viewer known to me on the iPhone.

Apple’s own QuickTimeVR is still missing in action.

So how do these panorama viewers compare?

For authors, PangeaVR takes a single equirectangular input, while CubeWorld takes six cubefaces. The cubefaces format requires slightly more authoring work (which can be automated), but in return it is easier on the rendering engine and should play better.

PangeaVR limits the size of the equirectangular image to 2048×1024, while CubeWorld works with cubefaces up to 1024×1024. However the image’s megapixel count (2 Mpx and 6 Mpx) can’t be immediately compared because of the different angular resolution. To compare, the dimensions must be normalized. The conversion formula is:

Which roughly means that an equirectangular image of 2048px long is equivalent to a cubeface of 591px.

Does this matter? given the iPhone’s screen resolution of 480x320px and that 90% of the audience does not zoom, a 512px cubeface is enough (and saves the users a bandwidth intensive and potentially expensive download).

How does it look in practice? I don’t know because I don’t own an iPhone and I do not intend to buy one for the following five reasons not to buy a 3G iPhone.

Apple’s QuickTime Update Breaks Detection

Recently Apple updated QuickTime. I received the update on my Windows box via Apple Software Update and I agree with John Lilly, Mozilla CEO, when he blasts Apple. It undermines the trust relationship great companies have with their customers, and that’s bad – not just for Apple, but for the security of the whole Web”. Indeed, it tried to sneak once again iTunes on my machine, despite me repeatedly checking the “ignore this upgrade” box.

The latest QuickTime update also undermines some of the plug-in detection code used to find out if a visitor has QuickTime in the browser, including in Apple’s own Safari. I found out about it the hard way last weekend at the first Toronto Panoheads Meeting. Lucky me I could divert my talk and talk about the World Wide Panorama instead.

Plug-in detection is critical to the proper display of plug-in dependent content such as VR. Trying to display a VR using a plug-in that is not available on the client results in awful degradation.

Detecting the availability of the plug-in is the first step in graceful degradation: if the plug-in is detected, chances are that the content will display properly. If it is not detected, the website can degrade gracefully and show the visitor a static image or a link to download the relevant plug-in.

There are two ways to detect the plug-ins: ActiveX probing (for Internet Explorer) and parsing the navigator.plugins array (for all other browsers). In Firefox, it is possible to display the content of the navigator.plugins array in a user readable format by typing about:plugins in the address bar:

Until recently, QuickTime’s version was listed in the form of Major.Minor.Revision. Now they seem to have moved to Major.Minor (Revision) – and some parsers will choke on that. Mine did.

I not only detect QuickTime, I also try to discern the real QuickTime from the many third party plugins that set their name so to fool the detectors and return positive to detection, like Totem or VLC. Hence, I check with a strict syntax, and when Apple breaks the syntax, my detection returns a false negative.

False negatives are IMHO better than false positives. The reason why third-party plug-ins want to fool the detector is because they think they can play QuickTime content. It may be true for audio/video and other linear content. Unfortunately it is not (yet) true for VR, objects or panoramas. Discerning whether the original QuickTime is installed or a copycat, makes the difference between a gracefully degraded website or one showing a broken movie.

Fixing my detection code was quick and all websites using it have been updated automatically. Of course it would be nicer if Apple would stick to its own conventions in the first place.

Flash Panoramas, the more the merrier.

The beginnings

In the beginning there was QuickTimeVR. Or was it ptviewer? Those were the days! At the turn of the millenium fans of both technologies fought endless verbal battles about which one is best to display their full spherical artwork. Then two things happened that left them in the cold:

  • now defunct iPix forced Helmut Dersch to pull the plug on panotools and ptviewer. The first Open Source panorama authoring and publishing solution survived thanks to the contributions of Fulvio Senore (ptviewer) Jim Watters, Bruno Postle, Daniel M. German and other contributors (panotools). Helmut’s software was ahead of time. He is now back in the community with new ideas.
  • business logic at Apple pulled the plug on QTVR development. It has lingered unsupported inside QuickTime, until recent updates crippled some functionality dear to VR-artists.

Life went on

  • Starting with the release of Windows XP Service Pack 1, Microsoft removed Java from its system and initiated Java’s decline in ubiquity. It has continuously lost market share since then and is now down at about 84%. Ten years after the inception of the web there was no widely deployed standard yet to display VR content!
  • 3D accelerated video cards became mainstream, and with them the market share of Adobe Shockwave increased too. Probably the first 3D accelerated panorama viewer, SPi-V was released November 22 2004 by Aldo Hoeben.
  • A flurry of viewing technologies came and went. None of them achieved more than single-digit market share. Noteworthy is DevalVR that attracted a passionate following of discerning users for its smooth panning and small footprint.

A new Open Source viewer is born September 14, 2005 when Pablo d’Angelo starts the FreePV Open Source Panoramic Viewer Project with Fulvio Senore and Thomas Rauscher. It is the first viewer to play QTVR on Linux and raises a lot o

f hopes in the community. A Google Summer of Code 2007 project by Leon Moctezuma added SPi-V playing capabilities, but the viewer is still experimental and suffers of the same problem the flurry of other viewing technologies: lack of market penetration. Keep fingers crossed, this year it may become a Google Summer of Code again, integration with the VLC media player.

Flash to the rescue!

flash logo

Flash based panorama players have existed for a while, though most of them did not correct perspective properly and where apt for either flat pictures (like Zoomify), or for cylindrical panoramas.

With the arrival of Flash 8 in August 2005 (although Linux users had to wait until January 2007, when Flash 9 for Linux was released), full spherical panoramas became possible. First generation full spherical players include Thomas Rauscher’s Pano2QTVR and Immervision’s PurePlayer Flash. Flash 8 was not completely up to the challenge yet. The audience reported seeing snakes instead of straight line.

With Flash 9 quality improved dramatically. Denis V. Chumakov’s FPP became the most popular Flash 9 player.

Flash is the most widely distributed plugin, with a market penetration of 98%. Adobe has done almost everything right to get Flash widely accepted. It’s a unique value proposition of ubiquity, features and flexibility.

In March 2007 I predicted a mushrooming of Flash based panorama viewers within 12-18 month, similarly to Flash based mp3 players. Today, Patrick Cheatham and Zephyr Renner made my prediction come true with the release of an Open Source viewer based on the Papervision3D engine. I hope it is the start of a growing community effort.

Meanwhile, Adobe works on Flash 10 that will include hardware accelerated 3D. Exciting times ahead!