Panoramas have been used since the late eighteenth century to educate and entertain audiences and to record and study significant events and locations. Large-scale images (in tapestries, trompe-l'œil paintings, and murals) had been used before, but Robert Barker, an Irish painter, is credited with the idea of a large cylindrical painting that would surround the viewer and provide an immersive experience in a scene. He patented the idea in 1787 and displayed his enormous panorama (more than thirty feet high) of Edinburgh inside a specially designed building in Leicester Square in London. Early experimenters in photography built both flat and cylindrical panoramas and incorporated them into dioramas and early versions of moving pictures. Panoramas of recent events (wars, fires, floods, and earthquakes), exotic locations, and cultural sites could be seen in variety of settings, ranging from hand-held viewers to permanently installed displays in museums and public buildings. The larger ones, which often sold printed handbooks instructing the viewer about the event or view being shown, provided a fairly sophisticated illusion that allowed the viewer to imagine him or herself to be "there," walking through Paris, in the middle of the battle of Waterloo, or on an Artic explorer's ship wintering in the ice.
With the advent of cinema, IMAX, digital technology,and growing expectations for virtual reality, contemporary audiences may find the panorama quaint artifacts that depend too much on the viewer's imagination. With a few exceptions, digital panoramas are viewed on a flat computer monitor or projection screen and, even when accompanied by audio, do not provide an immersive experience like that of a physical three-dimensional room.
But digital panoramas, when done correctly, are valuable research and teaching tools, especially for the study of art history, architecture, and cultural heritage sites. They provide a sense of scale, size, and place for buildings and art works and, more importantly, can be seeded with additional textual, visual, and audio data to explain and supplement the panorama. A carefully planned and properly executed digital panorama, like its nineteenth-century ancestor, is not a substitute for visiting a building or artwork in person, but an informed virtual version of a site or a work.
The IATH Best Practices Guide to Digital Panorama Photography is written for researchers and photographers looking to use digital technology to build digital panoramas of cultural heritage sites, architecture, and art works. There are several types of expertise required to create this kind of tool, and the guide contains advice on some of the technical, administrative, legal, and interpretive issues that may arise at each step of the process.