What started as a small group of photo geeks has morphed into a worldwide online community and also a thriving business. Google Street View - eat your heart out. Here's Prague's 360 Cities.
Run by a trio of Prague-based Americans, 360 Cities has just broken a new record. It's produced the world's largest panoramic photo - a fully zoomable, 320 gigapixel image of London taken from the top of the BT tower.
"We were founded six years ago with a handful of photographers," says 360 Cities founder Jeffrey Martin while setting up his 45mm Canon SLR in a leafy, non-descript park a few minutes from the company's office in Dejvice, Prague.
"Since then we've grown to thousands of photographers in every country and hundreds of thousands of geo-located panoramic images," says Martin.
His camera is mounted on a Clauss Rodeon panoramic robot - a hugely costly device that's bolted to the top of a tripod. It allows Martin to take some of the most precise panoramic photographs in the world.
With the press of a button on his laptop, the camera swings into action. The lens clicks every few seconds as the robot rotates 360 degrees, before pointing at the sky to complete another circuit.
Stunning, spherical landscapes
The resulting images - saved on the Canon's memory card - can be stitched together on a computer to produce a perfect panorama. In this case it's a rather uninteresting image of chestnut trees and children playing in a park. But Martin and the thousands of photographers - amateurs and pros - who have uploaded their images to 360 Cities have produced some stunning, zoomable land and cityscapes, from Senegal to Siberia.
"These are high-resolution images that let you zoom in and examine any place on the planet," he told DW.
Click. Zoom. Click.
"They're very big and fully spherical, so they're images that - if you're familiar with Google Street View for example - let you look all around and straight up and straight down."
Martin specializes in massively high-resolution images.
His 40-gigapixel photo inside Prague's baroque Strahov Library allows you to examine in meticulous detail the titles of ancient volumes, or zoom upwards to pore over the exquisite 17th century painted ceiling.
Some of the people who upload their images to 360 Cities are amateurs - and some are professionals. It makes theirs a truly worldwide community.
"What we do is offer photographers a way to publish 360 degree images which they've made themselves. There are a number of types of software that let you draw in pictures together," Martin explains.
Web community...and thriving business
"You would take some photos that overlap, you'd turn in a circle and take a number of overlapping photos that you'd then join together into a seamless 360 degree image. And then you would upload that image, that finished 360 degree photo, to our website," he says.
"Alternately, we have an iPhone/iPad app, which lets you create the 360 degree photo by turning slowly in a circle. It takes the pictures by itself. And you can publish it on our platform, too."
That's the community side of things. But 360 Cities is also, increasingly, a business.
More and more of the user-created photos are being licensed, creating income for both the photographer and 360 Cities.
"It's an exciting project, and it's nice to be doing something where you're right on the cusp. Nobody's done this exactly before," says Bruce Pales, 360 Cities's chief executive officer.
"If you've ever gone online to a photo agency, to buy a photo, that's what we're becoming," says Pales. "We're moving into the space of a stock photo agency. Sort of like a Getty Images for panorama photography."
"We've got a database of content - of panoramas - that nobody else in the world has. There's nobody out there who has anything even approaching what we have."
From football to Fiat
Companies will also pay big money for the sort of massively detailed, multi-gigapixel panoramas that Jeffrey Martin specializes in. Past commissions include the 2011 FA Cup Final and the interior of a Fiat car.
Some of the crowd images are so detailed you can zoom into faces and tag people you know - or yourself. It's great PR for sports and music promoters. But the panoramas also produce some fascinating and sometimes moving results.
"We've received some really interesting emails from people," says commercial director, Steve Hercher.
"One that always sticks in my mind is an email we got from an Iranian man who left Iran in the late 70s - he didn't say why - but you can make your own assumptions," says Hercher.
"And he'd discovered a panorama in Tehran that showed his old street and his old family home that he hadn't seen in all those years. He was quite emotional about it, and that was kind of nice to read. So we get emails like that from time to time. It gives people a really unique, interactive, immersive way to see something that they might not ordinarily see," Hercher says.
Next stop - Mars
360 Cities has gone to some pretty exciting places - the website now features underwater photos and even a zoomable panorama of Mars, featuring high-res images taken by NASA's Curiosity Rover. From there, oddly, there's an embedded link that takes you to a panorama of someone's kitchen, back on Planet Earth - surely an in-joke planted by Martin and the team.
Panoramic photography is, increasingly, a business. But it's also a whole lot of fun.