Site's panoramic shots show Michigan to world
April 11, 2005
BY MIKE WENDLAND
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Mark Houston has a passion for
showing Michigan to the world, in as much detail as
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,
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
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
"I do these VR panoramas in the early morning or on weekends
or after work," he said. "This is strictly my little
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
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
I like Houston's site a lot. I think you will, too.
Contact MIKE WENDLAND at 313-222-8861 or