Back in 1999, I had been experimenting with panoramic photography for a few years. I still shot with a film camera; digital photography was still in its infancy, and quality digital cameras were prohibitively expensive. I had done a fair amount of panoramic shooting at Enchanted Rock, a magical spot about an hour west of my home in Austin, Texas, and had shot a bunch of panoramas on a hiking trip I took in Europe, the Mt. Blanc circuit in France, Italy, and Switzerland, but still it was just a casual hobby.
But one day an idea came to me – the Grand Canyon ought to be a fabulous place for panoramic photography. I had visited the Grand Canyon twice, but, like most visitors, had barely ventured below the rim, but the thought of hiking and shooting the canyon was enticing. Not only were wide-open panoramic views to be found throughout the canyon, but, since it was in a desert environment, the views would not be hindered by trees. And with all those wide-open views, you should be able to create an impressive web of interlinked panoramas covering a huge area.
In March of 1999 I gave it a try. After day hiking a number of trails off the South Rim for a week, I set off on a 5 night backpacking trip along the main corridor, hiking down the South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Campground, then up the North Kaibab Trail for two nights at Cottonwood Campground, with a day hike continuing on the North Kaibab Trail about half way up to the North Rim, then back down the North Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel campground, then up the Bright Angel Trail to the Indian Garden Campground, and then finally up and out to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail.
I shot over a hundred panoramas on that trip, spent over a thousand dollars to have the images digitized, and then spent months creating the panoramas. You will not find a single panorama from that first trip within the project – they are far below my current standards, but I was hooked – by the beauty of the canyon, and the promise of digital photography within it. I created a goal for myself – to hike and shoot panoramas along every trail in Grand Canyon National Park, and to somehow publish and share those panoramas with the world. It took me over a decade to hike and shoot every trail, and now, over 15 years later, I’m ready to begin publishing and sharing those panoramas.
But how to publish them? When I first started creating panoramas, I used software from Apple to create panoramas in QuickTime, Apple’s all-purpose multimedia software, which is still in use today. But then how to distribute them? You needed a computer to view them, and you can deliver them either on an optical disk or over the internet, but QuickTime panoramas are contained in very large files. If you decide to put them on a CD, you just can’t fit very many high-quality panoramas on a single disk. Other panoramic photographers have created CDs with a limited number of panoramas, and you can walk into a gift shop at the Grand Canyon today and buy one, but I knew I could never fit the number of panoramas I had in mind on a single CD, and probably not even on ten.
So that left the internet, but QuickTime panoramas are ill-suited for it. Each QuickTime panorama is contained in a single file, and the file size of a quality panorama is so large that the download time is just too slow. I expect that when you visit an internet page containing a panorama that you should be able to see and navigate around within the panorama within a few seconds. So as of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I did not see a reasonable method of distribution. And so through the 2000’s I kept hiking and shooting throughout the canyon, but the panoramas were simply piling up on the hard disk of my computer.
In the late 2000’s a new path opened up. Developers of panorama software came up with a method of slicing up panoramas into tiles. Using the Flash browser plug-in from Adobe, you could create Flash movies that would display a panorama using just a few tiles at a time, covering just the portion of the scene you were looking at. Each tile was stored in a separate file, and the browser would only have to download the tiles it needed, and with the rapid spread of high-speed internet connections, internet delivery of high-quality panoramas became possible.
In 2009 I took the plunge. I quit my job as a software developer and dedicated myself to full-time work on the project. I still had plenty more trails to hike and shoot in the park, and I knew that I had a major software development effort ahead of me. There were a number of existing software products that would permit you to create tours containing a limited number of panoramas, say a maximum of ten or twenty, but there was nothing that would work for a project of the size I had in mind, containing maybe as many as a thousand panoramas. I needed software that could scale up at least to a thousand, and be able to grow beyond that. But I knew I had the skills to create software to do it, so late in 2009 I dove in.
But alas the world of technology never stands still. In 2010, while I was still buried in the development of my Flash-bsed software, Apple introduced the iPad. The iPhone had begun the mobile revolution in 2007, but with it’s tiny screen size and limited hardware, delivery of high-quality panoramas to an iPhone and other smartphones of the time made no sense. But viewing panoramas on an iPad was very promising, and if the project was going it reach a mobile audience, it would have to work on the iPad and other tablets that might appear.
But the project didn’t work on mobile devices, at least with the first major iteration of the project written in Flash. Apple, in what became a bitter dispute with Adobe, refused to support Flash on either the iPhone or the iPad. When Google developed the Android operating system and smartphones and tablets running Android first appeared, Google initially did support Flash on them, but it quickly became clear that the performance of Flash on Android devices was poor, and eventually Google dropped support of Flash.
There remained one other possible path for a Flash version of the project. There is a way to create standalone versions of Flash applications that can run outside of a browser, on both desktop computer and mobile devices. I experimented with creating such a version of the project, but the results were dismal. Performance of the standalone applications was very poor and buggy even on a desktop computer. It became clear by the end of 2011 that creating a Flash version of the project to run on mobile devices was a dead end, but I was determined that the project not be limited to desktop computers.
So in early 2012 I pretty much started over from scratch. I settled on creating an HTML5 version of the project. HTML5 held great promise – write a single web-based application and have it run on any browser, and all the major web browser vendors, desktop and mobile, promised to support it. And that is what I have done – the Grand Canyon Panorama Project that you see in your browser today is an HTML5 application. The HTML5 promise, though, has not been fulfilled completely. Browser support of HTML5 is neither complete nor consistent between browsers, but is good enough that the project consistently runs well on desktop computers and Apple iPhones and iPads. The world of Android devices, however, is highly fragmented, and Android support of HTML5 is very spotty. It may work on your Android device and it may not, but support is improving over time.
In 2013, with work on the HTML5 version of the project nearly complete, I decided to expand the scope of the project. The core project I had developed was wonderful at displaying maps and panoramas and providing a rich, interactive experience, but it didn’t have the scope of most modern websites. It didn’t have help pages, a blog, a search function, a way to link to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, or a way for project visitors to view and post comments. I had already begun hosting the project, however, on Amazon S3, which is a great solution for website hosting – its fast, highly scalable, and cheap. S3 websites, however, have to be ‘static’, meaning that they must have fixed content – no comments or other forms of the interactivity I wanted to offer.
I decided to create an ‘outer’ site that would wrap around the ‘inner’ core project, and it is the outer site that you land on today when you visit gcpano.org with your browser. The outer site is based on WordPress, a very popular piece of web software that was originally developed for blogs, but has expanded in scope to be able to handle just about any kind of web site, but still does its core functionality of blogs, pages, and comments very well. The outer site is hosted by WPEngine, a outfit dedicated to hosting high speed, highly scalable WordPress web sites. The inner site continues to be hosted by Amazon S3, and you jump back and forth between the two hosts as you move back and forth between the inner and outer sites
And that brings us to the present. I am right now in the process of creating a non-profit organization to support the project. When I obtain official non-profit status, I will seek out grants to support the project, and will be able to accept tax-deductible contributions. Your support will help to keep this project going.
And there is lots of work still to be done. Over the last few years, most of my time has been devoted to hiking, shooting, and developing the project software. As a result, a big backlog of panoramas waiting to be assembled has formed. currently over 500 panoramas. I have, however, created previews of the pending panoramas that you can see within the outer site, and both the outer and inner sites show you, both within maps and within the panoramas themselves, where the future panoramas will be located. Also, I have only recently begun creating narratives for the panoramas, and thus far the South Kaibab Trail is fully narrated. By my best reckoning, I have, working full time, at least four years of work ahead of me to assemble, narrate, and push all of those 500 panoramas out to the project. I do plan to create new panoramas and narratives on a regular, steady basis. By following the project via either Facebook or Twitter, you can be notified when new panoramas and narratives become available.
And I don’t plan to quit hiking and shooting either, at least as long as my back, legs, and lungs, all now in their mid-60s, allow me to do so. I do welcome the submission of Grand Canyon panoramas shot by others for consideration for inclusion in the project. In the coming months, I plan to post a series of blog posts on the techniques I use in the field to shoot high quality panoramas, and to assemble them once back home. Also, if given just the raw images shot in the field, I will do the world to assemble promising panoramas myself. If you’ve made it up to the top of Vishnu Temple and shot a panorama from up there, I want to share it with the world!
Finally, I hope to add additional features to the site. I’d like to add an online store to sell prints and posters derived from the panoramas. And what I’d really love to do is create a ‘frame your own panorama’ feature. With this feature, you could select any angle of any panorama that you like, then ‘snap’ a picture of that angle, and then save it as a favorite that you could go back to directly, share with friends, and order prints. Plenty to keep me busy – its a lifetime project.