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MIKE WENDLAND: Site's panoramic shots show Michigan to world

April 11, 2005


Mark Houston has a passion for showing Michigan to the world, in as much detail as possible.

He's become an expert on 360-degree digital photos, panoramic pictures that let you experience what you'd see if you stood in one spot and slowly turned all the way around. And he's using that skill to capture Michigan and its attractions and to bring them to the Internet at a site devoted to panoramas of the state, http://www.360michigan.net.

Recently, he used his skills to preserve in pictures the century-old Belle Isle Aquarium, which was closed earlier this month, and to celebrate the first day of spring at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Houston's pictures are unlike most images you see online or anywhere else. Click on them and full-screen versions open, brilliantly crisp and in clean detail. But they do much more than look good. They move in a slow 360-degree rotation that makes you feel as if you are right there, slowly turning in a circle.

Put your mouse on the image and click the left button to control the speed and direction of the pan. Move the mouse up, and the image shows you the tops of trees, the sky or ceiling. Move it down, and there's the sidewalk or floor.

Houston's aquarium panoramas are one of nine panoramic exhibitions of Michigan attractions displayed on his site. From Mackinac Island to the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes to Michigan lighthouses and the North American International Auto Show, 360michigan.net is what Houston calls a "VR journal" -- VR as in "virtual reality."

"I love Michigan," says the 40-year-old Ferndale resident. "And I love sharing its beauty and uniqueness with people through my photographs. I don't have to be long-winded or clutter up the site with words. The images are the main thing. The state is stunning, and it speaks for itself."

The panoramas are fairly easy to put together, he says. Each one is typically made up of 12 to 16 images taken in a circle. Software on his home computer takes those images and stitches them together into a continuous image.

Most Web browsers automatically start displaying the pictures. If not, Houston's site explains the simple process of downloading a free program that makes it happen.

Houston's day job, as you'd suspect, involves taking pictures. He works for DTE Energy and has spent 20 years in and around the city earning his living as a corporate and industrial photographer.

"I do these VR panoramas in the early morning or on weekends or after work," he said. "This is strictly my little passion."

A native of Ferndale, Houston just finished an online collaborative project with 250 other photographers. Working in 44 countries, each of them photographed and prepared a VR panorama on the theme of "Marketplace" that documented the spring equinox on March 20-21. The idea was to provide an international glimpse of the way people were shopping, trading and doing business during the same time period.

You can find all the images at www.worldwidepanorama.com, a project of the University of California at Berkeley's Geography Computing Facility; Houston's picture of Eastern Market is at http://geoimages.berkeley.edu/wwp305/html/MarkHouston.html.

The images from his next Michigan exhibit are now on his computer's hard drive, where he's tweaking them and laying them out. It will be a VR tour of Vassar, a small town in Tuscola County, a few miles east of Saginaw in the Thumb.

"I love small towns," he said. "And so many are disappearing. I'm going to try and document a bunch of them this summer."

I like Houston's site a lot. I think you will, too.

Contact MIKE WENDLAND at 313-222-8861 or mwendland@freepress.com.