It’s almost 2016. You have access to the world’s information in your hands at all times. Siri speaks up to answer your spoken questions. Your phone has “more computing power than all of NASA did when it started sending astronauts to the moon,” according to Business Insider.

So why are you still taking photos that, other than being in color, are barely better than those taken two centuries ago?

Wikipedia says that “practical photography” was introduced in 1839. So, other than the advance of widespread color photography some 70 years later, the results have been pretty much the same for 175 years: You’re at a beach, family gathering, or some other noteworthy event and you snap a flat, two-dimensional color photograph that you send to your friends with a quick caption.

If you spend all your time looking at a smartphone anyway, why not use it to transform your photography?If there's an emergency in your vicinity, your cell photo will likely let you know.

If you spend all your time looking at a smartphone anyway, why not use it to transform your photography?

Flickr.com

Here’s my advice to you: Stop taking flat photos! Here’s more advice: A “panorama” photo is just a wide photo; stop taking those, too!

Spice up your holiday snapshots and those from your next vacation by using some of that power your phone usually dedicates to crushing candy. Or don’t, because it’s really not that easy.

My First Step

A few months ago I read an interesting story from The Washington Post, in which the writer used a new tool called Story Spheres to capture a 360-degree image along with different sound clips embedded at specific spots around the photo. It was incredibly neat, and I wondered if it could be applied to my own casual snapshots.

Google’s Street View app guides you through the process of capturing a spherical photo with helpful orange dots.

Google’s Street View app guides you through the process of capturing a spherical photo with helpful orange dots.

Jason Rushin

Over the last few weeks, I found that it could … kind of, and with a lot of frustration.

I’m a rabid Android phone fan, so have used the smartphone camera’s “photo sphere” feature for a few years.

Usually, it was just to wow myself and annoy my less-geeky friends by showing them photo spheres on my phone.

If you’re familiar with using Google Map’s Street View, you know what I’m talking about: you see a flat photo but you can virtually “turn your head” by dragging the photo to see around you in 360 degrees.

You can even use your phone’s accelerometer to use your phone as a virtual window on your snapshot, so as you turn your phone, you see the different parts of the image as if they were around you.

Recently, Google released a Street View app, available on iOS and Android, which guides you through the sphere-photo-taking process. You just stand at your preferred vantage point, snap the first photo, and then move your phone around toward the helpful dots that surround that photo. In a minute or so, you’ve captured an entire sphere of photos beside, above, and below you.

While photo spheres are great to view on your own phone, sharing becomes a problem. For example, here’s my photo sphere from a Thanksgiving trip to Maui.

I had to direct you to an outside link because the downfall of a photo sphere is, in order to easily share it with someone else, you need to upload your photo to Google Maps and make it public to the world. That might be problematic to some. The second downfall is that you can’t easily embed it in a blog or, sadly, this column.

Here’s a photo sphere as a flat image, which sort of looks like a really bad photo that’s missing a chunk or two.

Here’s a photo sphere as a flat image, which sort of looks like a really bad photo that’s missing a chunk or two.

Jason Rushin

Adding Sound And Narration

Photo sphere goes beyond a flat photo, but outside of the difficulty in sharing, it still lacks the “immersiveness” that captures the sounds of a scene, or just your narration. Recalling The Washington Post story, I set out to turn my sphere into a modern story.

Story Sphere wasn’t developed by Google, but a disclaimer says that it “made with some friends at Google,” whatever that means. Also, like any fancy new tech, it’s currently in beta, which means that it only works occasionally and it’s not for the average person.

A Story Sphere lets you add sound clips, which the viewer can access by clicking on the embedded music notes throughout the photo.

A Story Sphere lets you add sound clips, which the viewer can access by clicking on the embedded music notes throughout the photo.

Jason Rushin

In my test case, I had to switch between browsers, relaunch browsers, and start over many times before I was able to complete my first Story Sphere. I also had to download the photo sphere from my phone to my laptop, resize the image to the accepted size, plus record sounds in three separate mp3 files.

In other words, the average person is never going to do this. They do offer an Android app that makes creation slightly easier, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

You can check out my finished, and fairly weak, Story Sphere here. Be sure to spin around looking for the three, clickable music notes to start the short narrations.

OK, But What’s Easy And Sharable?

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “But why isn’t this easier?”

I don’t know, frankly, and this is a frustrating end to this column. Sharing is an issue, and the easiest thing to do is pass around your phone like it’s a modern View-Master you remember from childhood.

Google’s other new app, Cardboard Camera, does increase the easy factor, but instead of capturing a spherical photo, Cardboard Camera takes a 360-degree circular photo. The best part is that it adds sound as you’re taking the photo.

I took one at the beach, which was made infinitely cuter (in my opinion) because it loops the sounds of the waves mixing with my young child’s giggles as I pan around. I took another outside of a Northern California hotel, near a water fountain, and the sounds of the splashing water instantly takes me back to that moment. But it’s only viewable on the phone that took it, so you can’t see them. Frustrating, right?

If you could only hear the splashing of the water fountain, you, too, would be transported to this idyllic moment ... probably.

If you could only hear the splashing of the water fountain, you, too, would be transported to this idyllic moment … probably.

Jason Rushin

Sadly, it’s only available on Android now, but is reported to be available for iPhones “in the coming weeks.”

The images captured by Cardboard Camera do, however, work surprisingly well with Google Cardboard, the physical virtual reality headset offered by the tech giant that gives each of your eyes their own image, creating the illusion of three dimensions. The app somehow takes your single photo and parses out slightly different images for each eye. Along with the app’s automatic sound capture, it’s like you’re there.

Cardboard Camera images can be viewed in stereoscopic glory using Google Cardboard, creating a surprisingly good three-dimensional image. Note how the tree trunk is slightly closer to the frame in the left eye’s image versus the right eye’s image.

Cardboard Camera images can be viewed in stereoscopic glory using Google Cardboard, creating a surprisingly good three-dimensional image. Note how the tree trunk is slightly closer to the frame in the left eye’s image versus the right eye’s image.

Jason Rushin

The Bottom Line

I set out on this quest to offer up tips for taking the best modern, immersive photos that will wow your friends and relatives and make you the envy of the office holiday party. Instead, I was slammed back to the reality that is 2016: easily shareable photos are flat and silent, just like they’ve been for nearly 200 years.

Unless you want to see — and hear — the stunning awesomeness of the three-dimensional, virtual reality, spherical, immersive photos of my last few vacations! But then we have to be physically together. And you have to use my phone. And I have to remember to bring my Google Cardboard headset. And make sure my phone’s volume is turned up.

But, boy, isn’t technology great!

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.