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Departments : Computers & Software

Easypano Crime Scene Virtual Tour & Publisher

You can make crime scenes come alive with this panoramic image-stitching tool.

April 01, 2005  |  by Bob Davis

 Crime scene investigation is a basic step in every criminal investigation. Beyond the wizardry of DNA and trace fiber analysis that are shown on TV shows like “CSI” there are other vital tasks that crime scene technicians and detectives perform to connect the dots and solve the crime. One of these tasks is photography.

I know what you’re thinking. There’s nothing new about good crime scene photography. Wrong. There are new tools, and I’m going to recommend one of them. Easypano’s Crime Scene Virtual Tour (CSVT) software lets you and, if necessary, each juror virtually step into your scene without having to leave the comfort and security of the courtroom. All you’ll need is some decent camera equipment, a good computer, and, of course, CSVT.

Easypano’s CSVT application is a no-brainer if you’re looking for a great way to capture an entire crime scene with two or three hemispheric photos. To understand hemispheric, take one of my favorite sports objects, a baseball, and cut it in half. Now you have two hemispheres. Now, consider your crime scene. It has all three dimensions, just take a couple of 183-degree shots with a fish-eye lens. and you can tour your scene from virtually any angle.

With conventional photography you’d need dozens of overlapping shots to achieve a 360-degree panorama of a crime scene, and you would still have confusing perspectives and limited range both horizontally and vertically. But CSVT lets you look at a panoramic scene from any angle. You can even zoom, pan, tilt, and rotate while considering the facts of the crime.

If a suspect says she was standing at a certain place, you can virtually put yourself there and see her perspective. If a witness claims he saw the whole thing, a couple of shots and you’ll know what he could and more importantly could not have seen. Simply put, the 360-degree imagery produced by CSVT makes you feel as if you wandered through the scene.

To get started you’ll need basic knowledge of camera operations. And you’ll need a camera. Which means you’ll also have to make a decision about image quality. Do you need high-quality digital images or will you use it to supplement your 35mm stills?

Easypano recommends digital photography to avoid the extra step of scanning images. But if all you have is a film camera, you can still use the software. On the company’s Website, you will find recommendations about both low- and high-end imaging solutions.

I own a Nikon Coolpix 995 and a Canon EOS 20D, so I was able to test the CSVT software at both ends of the image quality spectrum. After borrowing a fish-eye adapter I needed to acquire one more important tool that would allow me to use CSVT, a rotating tripod head.

A spherical panoramic tripod head, or “rotator,” lets the camera spin the essential number of degrees to compose hemispheric shots. The rotator mounts on any high-quality tripod and both are absolutely necessary for the shot. The panoramic head I found was designed by Agno’s Engineering, www.agnos.com, an Italian company that manufactures high-end solutions for panoramic photography.

Using my Nikon with the fish-eye adapter, I was able to take my first shot then rotate the camera 180 degrees counter clockwise for the other half. As I mentioned earlier your tripod is another essential since I suspect you’ll be doing most of your work indoors. This means that you will need to use long exposures in existing light with the aperture of the lens closed down to give you the largest depth of field possible, something you can’t do without a tripod. The large depth of field keeps items in focus both close to the camera and further away, and this is essential in crime scene photograpy.

Once you’ve finished the principal photography, it’s back to your PC where you can upload your images and use the CSVT stitching software to blend them together. You’ll need a Pentium III PC or higher running at 500 MHz or faster with at least 256MB of RAM and 100MB of free hard drive space. You’ll also need a fast video card running 800x600, with no less than 256 colors on the screen. CSVT runs on all of the typical Windows platforms from Windows98 through XP.  

After loading and registering the software you’re ready to begin. Don’t ignore registering the software as there are benefits availabe to registered users on the Easypano Website (www.easypano.com).

The user interface for the photographic stitching software is intuitive and has both automatic and manual stitching methods. Additionally, you’ll find it packed full of tools that will help you make nearly any adjustment necessary to create a perfect sphere.

After you have created your panoramic shot, the “publishing” application lets you create a tour for your audience. It’s totally up to you. You can add hot spots to display appropriate information or link them to sound files, allowing you to give the viewer an audio guided tour. You can also insert a map or a floor plan of the crime scene, or link multiple panoramic shots together from one crime scene.

Once you’ve added all the bells and whistles, let Easypano’s “Virtual Publisher” do its job and you’ll have a Java-enabled tour that you can view with any Internet browser.

Think of it like a realtor’s virtual home tour but in your case you’re using it to tell a story to a jury. If a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words, a virtual tour of a crime scene could be the piece of evidence that convinces 12 people that you’ve made your case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bob Davis supervises the San Diego Police Department’s computer lab. He has 26 years of experience on the force.

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