6 February 2018

An update on the state of affairs with my GigaPan images

Posted by Callan Bentley

I love the idea of high-resolution imagery that users can explore for geological meaning from the comfort of their computer screens, tablets, or phones. I think that 3D models and gigapixel-resolution panoramas (GigaPans) are powerful media for connecting people with the Earth. They allow improved access for many populations. Long-time readers will report that I regularly used to embed GigaPans in this blog as part of the stories I tried to tell.

But it’s been a rough few years for the technology of GigaPan. Shortly after I was seduced by the medium, the GigaPan company went belly-up, and the parts of the company (the software part, the hardware part, and the image-hosting website part) went their separate ways. Though it’s still possible to make GigaPans and upload them to GigaPan.com, the website is a ship without a crew. One consequence of this is that no one’s updating its code to match the march of time, the progress of technology. Because the website doesn’t support https (as opposed to old fashioned http) URLs, it’s no longer considered secure to embed their images in blog posts here on Mountain Beltway. This is a shame because it renders dysfunctional all those virtual field experiences (VFEs) that I’ve built up here over the years. I made them to be awesome, but now they are broken.

I also built up a huge repository of exercises and collections on my NOVA faculty website, some of which mirrored content originally posted here on the blog. (I’d link to it here, but that link would be worthless, as you’ll see below…)

The earliest version of the embedding code (to stick GigaPans as live, dynamic images within some other webpage, like a blog post) was based on Flash. The Flash-based embed code was functional on several fronts: it allowed the person doing the embedding to select certain snapshots (little highlighted areas) to include while excluding others that were tangential to their purpose. It didn’t have a title, which was good if you use the imagery the way I do: by having students figure out what’s going on in these images. Along similar lines, it didn’t have a direct link back to the source image page. (Some tech-savvy students figured out how to get back to the source page by reading the HTML that coded for the embed, but most didn’t – and took the exercise at face value.)

That said, it was Flash — and you know how people are about Flash. The medium, so vital and promising when first released, has been in the process of being “deprecated” (made to go away) for years now. But it persists nonetheless. Many browsers and devices don’t support Flash, and it created technical problems for my students — problems that got in the way of learning. I spent a decent amount of time each semester coaching students down the one or two paths that would lead to successfully accessing the material.

Fortunately, one of the last major acts of the GigaPan company prior to folding was to install an HTML5-based embedding code on their website, assuming that users (i.e., those who posted the images) clicked the “it’s okay for other people to embed my images” button. This allowed a non-Flash embed, but while it’s MUCH more widely accessible, it doesn’t allow snapshots and it does automatically link back to the source image, which is a bummer for those seeking to drive students to make their own observations and conclusions. It’s also not intuitive, but a unique identifier of garbled letters and numbers for each image. (This makes it harder to systematically program; each identifier has to be retrieved individually. It would however also negate the efforts of the tech-savvy students to reach back and find where the imagery was coming from vita the HTML – but of course they don’t have to, since the link is right there on the image!)

I was in the process of slowly updating my curriculum by reprogramming the collections and VFEs to the new HTML5 version, when last fall my college made the sudden decision to put all faculty webpages behind a password-protected access wall. This was motivated by a desire to be in compliance with ADA accessibility requirements for their public-facing content. We were given a couple of weeks of notice; all public-facing content created by faculty disappeared at that point. Though students could still log in and access the web pages I had created, the embedding integral to the web pages was now broken by the new ‘password wall.’

So my hand was forced, and I began migrating material over the the GEODE website, the site established to showcase the digital materials that my colleagues and I produced through the Google Earth for On-site and Distance Education project over the past five years. This site too isn’t a perfect venue, as all its pages bear the same (link-filled) banner (I’d prefer a blank slate), but at least it’s stable, and it’s HTML5-capable (though Flash works there too). Here, for instance, are a few of the pages I’ve built there over the past few months:

Wind River Canyon, Wyoming (Flash-based)

Wind River Canyon, Wyoming (HTML5-based)

Massanutten Synclinorium, Virginia (Flash-based)

Massanutten Synclinorium, Virginia (HTML5-based)

Rathlin Island: kilometer to micron (Flash-based)

Rathlin Island: kilometer to micron (HTML5-based)

Sedimentary deposits in the Canadian Rockies (Flash-based)

Sedimentary deposits in the Canadian Rockies (HTML5-based)

Siccar Point, Scotland (HTML5-based, including 360° spherical photos and 3D models)

Rock identification review exercise 1 via 3D models

Metamorphic rocks virtual collection (Flash-based)

Metamorphic rocks virtual collection (HTML5-based)

I’ll share another set tomorrow. These aren’t perfect, but I think they’re almost as good as they can be at this point, given the suite of options available. Please explore & get back to me with your feedback.

Meanwhile, the GIGAmacro company, whom I’ve been thrilled to collaborate with these past 6 or 7 years, has launched an imagery server of their own. Here’s an example of a gallery of geological images hosted there. This has a much higher degree of functionality than even the best that GigaPan.com ever managed. It has a dynamic scale bar, point, line, and polygonal annotations. The images can be rotated, inverted, layered, compared. It’s the bee’s knees. Here’s a gallery I put together for the last GSA annual meeting, of images we’ve made relative to the latest-Devonian Spechty Kopf Diamictite in the Appalachian Valley & Ridge province. (I previewed some of the features of the GIGAmacro viewer in this video before GSA.) I think their platform is the future for this medium, with a much wider range of tools and a commitment to quality assurance that can no longer be expected at the GigaPan site. The problem there is that I’d have to port all of my imagery over to GIGAmacro from the GigaPan site, and again, that has to be done one at a time. It’s quite time-consuming, all of this, and is a reason why my productivity here on the blog has suffered in the past half a year. Not to mention, my amount of available material has been severely throttled too.

I figured I should spell all this out, since long-time readers will doubtless be wondering what happened to that initiative.