Friday, October 10, 2008

Orion Mount for Gigapixel Panoramic Photography


Exciting news for all of the Gigapixel Panoramic Photographers wishing to use a Digital SRL for mosaic image acquisition.

Introducing the Orion DSLR Robotic Panoramic Mount.

Mount Features:

Supports any camera including heavy digital SLR's (even medium format digital camera's)
Supports long telephoto lenses
Relatively compact, sturdy and lightweight.
Powered by 8 AA batteries or external power supply.
Precise pan and tilt placement and movements.
Wired handheld remote for manual mount positioning.
Bluetooth connection for wireless mount control.

Control Software Features:
Open Source 'Papywizard' software, actively developed by the very friendly Frédéric Mantegazza.
Set Aspect Ratio (3:2,5:4, etc.)
Set sensor to lens coeficient (ie 1.5 for nikon, 1.6 for canon APS-C sized sensors)
Set lens length in MM.
Set format (Landscape or Portrait)
Acquire images in columns or rows.
Set stabilization delay, allow for bracketing.
Logging mount position for each image to logfile. (Very useful for Autopano Giga)
Pausing during sequence.
Preset patterns for common focal lengths or user specified start/stop and pattern
Can make an XML file for your own presets (Very nice)
Can provide carriage return (like the Gigapan unit)
Can allow for camera's Mirror Lock Up

Control Unit Features:
Nokia 770,800,810 ($70-$100, $130-$200, $350) 'Internet Tablet'.
8 oz
High Resolution 800x480 backlit color LCD screen.
Wifi and Bluetooth connections
SD memory card reader.
Can connect to Internet over your bluetooth phone or via Wifi
Built in Mozilla Browser and Flash Player (control unit can browse itself!)
4 hour lithium ion battery.
Runs 'Meomo' Linux.

Sound enticing? I am sold, where do I buy one???

You have to make it yourself and you need to use a soldering iron, but its not that hard. My total cost with shipping $400. (Soon you will not need a soldering iron when the reciever units are made available for purchase by Kolor at

Here is the recipe I used:
Orion Teletracker Mount $250
Breadboard power regulator $10 Sparkfun Product
Bluesmirf Bluetooth Modem $50 Sparkfun Product
Nokia 770 (I won mine at $80) Ebay Auction This is optional, you can drive it from a laptop running linux
Papywizard Software (Free, but Frédéric Mantegazza deserves a donation!) Papywizard Works on Linux, Windows and the Nokia OS2007 and OS2008. (Windows Bluetooth support via a pair of pair of RS232-Bluetooth adapters as a wireless serial cable replacement only at this moment and a problem with Vista 64)

Will also need a phone cord with an RJ11 jack on one end and accessible real wires in the cord (some are too flimsy to solder to the Bluesmirf and power supply)
A couple 220 ohm resistors.
A cable to trigger your camera (depends on type of camera, the Orion mount provides a contact closure through a stereo mini jack, which can directly drive a Nikon and Cannon higher end DSLR's {those such as D40 need an infrared signal}, will need the 10pin Nikon plug, can buy a cable release off Ebay for $10 to get the plug)

You have to build the bluetooth connection to the Orion mount yourself. The Bluesmirf modem comes assembled and ready to use, but the power regulator needs about a half hour of assembly.
You hook the Bluesmirf modem up to the Power Regulator to convert the 9-12v power from the Orion jack to the 5v required for the Bluesmirf modem. Pins 1 and 3 from the 4 pin phone jack on the Orion unit are ground and +Vcc which connect to the power input on the power regulator, the output of the power regulator connect to the ground and vcc of the Bluesmirf. The serial data lines (Tx and Rx) from the'Bluesmirf connect to the the 220 ohm resisters, which on the far side of the resisters, get twisted together and connects to the serial pin on the phone jack (pin 4). This establishes an asynchronous connection between the Bluesmirf and the Orion teletracker. Any computer with a bluetooth connection can then pair with the Bluesmirf and control the Orion with Papywizard or by issuing commands over a COM port.

(Update 11/15) You can use a Tronisoft 4201 RS232-TTL module that has a built in power supply, so no need to make your own. Soon this will be available from the Kolor lab from fully assembled.

About the unit in operation:

It is heavier than the Gigapan Robotic unit, my D200 with 500mm Sigma lens, tripod, Orion mount is 18 pounds. My Gigapan Robotic unit with tripod and Panasonic DMC-FZ50 with 1.7x accessory lens is 12 pounds. So 50% more weight to haul around.

A Nikon D90 is only rated to 150,000 on the shutter life and costs $900 so its like burning a candle when making thousands of exposures for a gigapixel image, a 300 image Gigapan will cost you $2.00 in the life of the camera, a 1000 image will be $6.00. I don't know the shutter life on a digicam, but they are only a couple hundred dollars so if they last a similar amount of time the cost is less, but imagine using a new D700 at $2800, a 1000 image Gigapan would be $18 off the life of the camera.

The Orion unit moves the camera slower than the Gigapan Robotic unit does, which as a positive means there is less jerkiness on the stops, so a shorter stabilization delay can occur, but it does take longer overall to capture a scene. The Orion unit can be driven without carriage returns, such as up to down, pan to left, down to up, pan to left, up to down... so you don't have to invest time into resetting the unit to the top for each column. Currently this will really screw up stitching with the Gigapan Stitcher software so you would need to rename the images on every other column with a resort so the stitcher can deal with them. Someone could easily write a program to do this or even look at the logfile created by the Papywizard software to automatically do this. Said program does not exist yet. The motors in the Orion unit can run the unit faster than it runs (it was designed for telescope slewing), but nobody has tested if this burns them out. The author of Papywizard, Frederick, knows how to drive the unit faster, so its possible, if the motors don't fry, that the unit could run faster. The motors in the unit are not servos, they are DC motors that have encoders on them. This has the benefit of not taking power when not moving (unlike a servo, which uses power to hold position and to move) and the unit knows where the head is oriented at all times, it provides feedback to the software as to the position of the head. The software waits until it reaches the desired position before firing the camera. In a timed test running both the Gigapan and the Orion with cameras set at the same field of view (750mm lens 35mm equivalent, and not using the 'Carriage return', it took 40% more time for the Orion to acquire a .5 gigapixel scene.

With that said, with a DSLR, the pixel density is so much lower (1-5 megapixels/cm vs 25-35 megaxiels/cm of sensor area) that you are going to get very much less sensor noise, so can take far fewer photos for the same equivalent 'information'. A digicams 1 gigapixel image provides no more real resolution or image data than a .5 gigapixel image from a large sensor DSLR. You can take far fewer photos and it will take far less time to stitch and post process them than with a digicam. Here is information on sensor sizes sensor size article

You can compare these two Gigapans Nikon D200 Test Gigapan and Panasonic DMC-FZ50 Test Gigapan Zoom all the way in and you see all the chroma noise from the FZ50 and none from the D200. I will work on making another larger comparison to better prove my point. Here is what a large, DSLR gigapan can look like though (1 gigapixel) Geneva Lookout Gigapan (shot actually with the D200 on the Gigapan unit) How much time will you save stitching less images though! (I would venture a LOT, and not filling up your hard drive as bad too!)

While its still in 'Alpha' stage of development, the Autopano Giga version will directly load in the logfile created by Papywizard and use this data (its in XML format) for placement of the images in the mosaic before stitching, so you can shoot in any pattern (rows, columns, carriage returns) you like, including bracketing, etc! Look for the stable version hopefully by December. It features multi-core processor use, images can be at different exposures (scene leveling) and even use of the GPU. Its not free, but it is exciting.

The Papywizard software is fun to use, on the Nokia its very cool to be away from the unit and control it wirelessly! And you can pause and resume without being right by the camera (bluetooth only works about 30 feet though). The Nokia 770 screen gets a little washed out in open sunlight so you will need to shadow it if you can, its definitely not as easy to see as the LCD panel on the Gigapan in open sunlight. It also has to boot up (30 seconds), but does have sleep mode that it wakes up from in just a few seconds. The Nokia 770 is a discontinued model that you have to Flash the bios with a new OS to install Papywizard. Simple enough but not 100% straight forward. A Nokia 800 or 810 does not need to be flashed. Conceivably an Iphone version could be developed, Papywizard runs on Python, which has been ported to Iphone. Most of the features that I desire are already in Papywizard. I think it needs the ability to pause and go back a number of steps like the Gigapan unit can do, so that you could deal with traffic and people interruptions in real time. I am sure it is possible to get this added to Papywizard as its not limited by a small bit of internal program memory like the Gigapan unit.

Autofocus is still an issue with the DSLR's. They work great when there is something to focus on but they don't know what to do with a blue sky and spend too long searching back and forth, then settling on a focus spot that is not at infinity. The digicams have the same problem but tend to give up faster and just take the shot. I have thought a lot about this problem and think that a circuit that is after the Orion unit that would provide for an autofocus closure event for the camera followed by a set focus delay and then an exposure closure event, with the camera set on exposure priority rather than focus priority would at least mean no skipped frames. A simple circuit using a couple 555 timer IC's could be built to do this. The best, but least likely solution would be for a camera manufacturer to provide a panoramic focus mode in the firmware that operates like this, try to focus for a second, if no focus contrast is found, set the lens at the hyper-focal length that includes infinity and take the photo. Of course the unit functions great with manual focus as well as auto focus when there is subject matter to focus on.

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet is very cool, but this discontinued item is not supported by Nokia anymore and the software and OS are out of date. It has to have the OS flashed to a hacker version to run Papywizard, and this version tends to freeze up sometimes when browsing the internet. It does not have a modern flash player (has Flash 6). I would recommend buying a new $200 Nokia 800 if you want to use any of the Internet features, but the $80 770 model is 100% capable of driving the Orion. A $350 ultraportable 2lbs could do the same thing, as well as any laptop computer if you want to carry one of those into the field. I thought the Nokia was so cool I wanted it to do everything, but its not up to the task that the faster, more up to date operating system and larger memory 800 does. With the 800 and 810 no 'hacker verion' of OS required and Flash 9 included out of the box.

(update 11/15) I went out and won a Nokia 800 for just $130 on ebay. Its so much faster and it does not have all the hicups that the 770 had with internet usage. The 770 is perfectly great for running the Papywizard, but the other internet features are a bit lacking (no Flash support, etc.) These are all great units, but you will still have Ipod envy as the touch screen works best with a stylus than with a finger and they are not advertised on TV all the time with cool applications. Nokia could have taken the lead but is asleep at the wheel. I looked at the Iphone and the unlimited data contract is soo expensive considering I need none of that as most of the time I am within Wifi signal range. The Nokia 770 has a better case for putting in the camera bag, I will probably keep it and use it for running Papywizard and use the 800 for watching Youtube videos while sitting in the hot tub or some other useless need.

The Gigapan Robotic unit is lighter, quicker, easier to set up, less pieces, smaller, complete package back-packable, etc. The Orion unit is heavier, larger, slower, slightly more cumbersome in that you have to start up the Nokia and start up Papywizard, and can't see it as easily in sunlight as the simple display on the Gigapan, but it works well with DSLR's.

I am not 100% satisfied with either unit, but I love them both and wholeheartedly respect all the work done by Randy and the Gigapan team. I tried very hard to satisfactorily get the Gigapan unit to move my Digital SLR around but was always disappointed with the results (it does great with the Panasonic FZ50 though - I have an electronic release for it. I very much dislike the servo button pusher system of the Gigapan, I had no patience for that and how it moves the camera when it pushes the shutter button, hence I built an electronic release). I have had full success using the Gigapan unit to move the Nikon D200 with a 105mm lens or less (as long as the batteries don't get too cold).

Looking forward to your feedback!

Jason Buchheim
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