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Calendar - Jan, 2006
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Andrew's Weblog

Jan 2006

Week in Review
by Andrew on Mon Jan 09, 2006 9:34 AM
This past week we announced a virtual tour contest in which the winners will receive free copies of Mapwing Creator Pro. To participate, all one has to do is download the demo of Mapwing Creator Pro, use it to create a virtual tour, and post the finished tour to this thread. Hopefully, there will be some great entries!

Mapwing Creator Pro 1.1 was released this week. The update includes major improvements, bug fixes, and enhancements. Everyone with either 1.0 of the full-version or demo should download the update immediately.

Redbug and Mapwing received a good bit of publicity this week. Here are some of the sites that generated the most traffic to our site: MacNN, Frosty Place, and Cult of Mac.

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Clarity in Software Design
by Andrew on Mon Jan 23, 2006 9:55 AM
In my experience, there are mainly two types of software applications. The first are the “power apps” like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. These applications provide hundreds of features and a great deal of flexibility. They also have a steep learning curve and clunky interfaces. Too many options can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. GUI (Graphical User Interface) clutter is quite common as buttons, toolbars, and menus jockey for screen real estate.

The second type are the “lean apps” which trade extensive feature sets for efficiency. Shareware often falls into this category. For example, Delicious Library catalogs collections of music, DVDs, and books. While a large database or spreadsheet application could accomplish this task, Delicious Library does it better, providing a slick interface and a simple, user-friendly workflow. However, this does come at the loss of flexibility. Delicious Library is great for organizing collections but has little applicability beyond that.

So which is the better approach to software design, a powerful or lean design?

Generally, I prefer the lean design, though Mapwing uses a little bit of both. The biggest advantage of leanly designed software is clarity. Simply put, when you use a lean app, there is less complexity and less confusion. This make the workflow more efficient. For example, both Macromedia Flash Professional and Mapwing Creator Pro can create similar virtual tours. However, unlike Mapwing, Flash Pro is not explicitly setup to create tours. Flash Pro is an all-purpose power app designed to create everything from web sites to animated movies. While less customizable, Mapwing is certainly more efficient. It is designed with just the right set of features to create virtual tours, making its workflow many times faster.

Of course, not everyone sees clarity as an important concept in software design. Several times Mapwing has been criticized as a lean app with a power app price. To a certain extent, this is flattering. Unlike similar applications, Mapwing has managed to keep GUI clutter to a minimum. Instead of relying on a floating tool palette, Mapwing Creator Pro makes use of on-window buttons, menu options, and keyboard commands. Even the Mapwing navigation system reduces GUI overkill by using a simple system of arrow cursors and image icons. A clean design does not happen by accident. Each new feature addition to Mapwing is careful scrutinized for necessity and optimized for workflow efficiency. Often times, developers will start with a lean app and simply pile on the features over time. While the software gets more feature rich, it becomes bloated and increasingly difficult to use.

A common misconception is to see clarity as cheapness. Part of the advantage of buying of a lean app is the increased efficiency that comes with a clear design. Mapwing Creator Pro will never have the flexibility of Flash Pro. But, then again, that isn’t its goal. Rather Mapwing Creator Pro simplifies the normally complex process of creating virtual tours, saving users hassle, time, and money. Might clarity in software design be one of the powerful features of all?

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Mapwing and Panoramas
by Andrew on Tue Jan 31, 2006 11:37 AM
Mapwing is not panorama software. The two virtual reality systems are fundamentally different in the way each represents a point in space. Panoramas try to capture a perfect 360º image. The most common method for doing this uses a specialized tripod, a camera with a wide angle lens, and stitching software. The camera is mounted on the tripod and an image is taken. The tripod head is then panned a specific number of degrees depending upon the angle of the camera’s lens and another shot is taken. This process is repeated until a 360º field of view has been captured. Next, the images are imported into a stitching program which blends the separate images into a single, panoramic image. Finally, the photographer must choose a method for displaying the panorama. Usually, this is either QuickTime VR or a Java-based applet. These applications can be embedded into web pages and read the panoramic image for display. The user can navigate the panorama by dragging his mouse left or right. This pans the image in the viewing window.

Panoramas are nice because they provide a complete 360º view of a location. However, they are expensive to create, requiring a serious photographer to invest thousands of dollars into specialized tripods, lenses, and stitching software. They require many steps to build and a moderate level of technical prowess. Furthermore, panoramas are not virtual tours. While they provide a complete view of a location, they do little to convey a sense of three-dimensional, spatial movement. To do this, a photographer must purchase more software to connect the panoramas, create maps, and blend the different media together. Simply put, quality panoramas are neither easy to create nor cheaply produced.

After examining the disadvantages of panoramas, Redbug began working on Mapwing. As I said earlier, Mapwing is not panorama software. The Mapwing system uses four photographs to represent a point in space. These can be thought of as north, east, south, and west views. These views can be taken with any camera and with or without a tripod. That said, the views will look better if shot with a wider lens. Users without wide lenses can take a few steps back before taking each picture to artificially widen the field of view. Finished pictures are brought into Mapwing Creator Pro and dropped into the appropriate image wells. Mapwing does not require stitching. The finished point can be viewed in Mapwing Viewer or Mapwing Flash Viewer. The user clicks on the edges of the viewing area to turn around the point.

The Mapwing system has one main disadvantage. It doesn’t always provide a perfect 360º view. However, this trade off comes with several distinct advantages. First, Mapwing is compatible with any digital camera and lens. It does not require specialized tripods or other equipment. Second, Mapwing images do not require stitching. This eliminates the need for a stitching program and the time spent making a panorama. Third, Mapwing provides a built-in method for connecting points, adding hotspots and comments, and placing a map background. These advantages make Mapwing easier to use and more cost effective than the panorama workflow. Mapwing also makes it possible to create large scale virtual tours that convey a strong sense of space.

In general, Mapwing’s harshest critics are photographers heavily invested in panorama technology. I often refer to this as the “elitist” mentality. These individuals feel threatened by that which is less expensive and better geared toward consumers. For example, when video first appeared, the film community was quick to criticize its poor image quality. Although this was true, video never sought to fulfill the same role as film. Its goal was to place the power of moving images into the hands of consumers. Thirty years later, film use is waning as video technologies have matured and gained widespread acceptance. While I hope to see panoramas continue to play a role in the virtual reality community, I suspect they will eventually be supplanted by more accessible technologies.

Other critics insist that panoramas are better virtual reality than Mapwing tours. Arguments like these are common when a new media form is introduced. Just look at painting and photography. While photography is normally thought of as more realistic, there do exist lifelike paintings. By there same token, artistic photography is quite common too. Critics of the Mapwing style should remember Myst. Myst is one of the most popular computer games of all time. Why is that? Besides the challenging puzzles, Myst immerses users in a virtual world, built in a style similar to a Mapwing tour. In fact, Exile, a sequel to Myst, utilized panoramas. Though, it is interesting to note that Exile never achieved the popularity of its predecessor. So, might the quality of a virtual reality experience hinge on something deeper than the medium it is created with? Certainly. It hinges on the ability of the experience to captivate a person’s imagination. That’s what Mapwing is all about.

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