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Mark Zuckerberg and other tech giants may be pouring billions into virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse, but you don't need to be Facebook or Apple to use VR technology in your business. There have been affordable smartphone apps available for more than a decade that allow users to shoot 360-degree panoramic photographs of the scene around them, and to convert these into 3D VR walkthroughs. However, the results can often look a little rough and ready, as the app attempts to 'stitch' multiple images together to create a full 360-degree view of your surroundings.
The Matterport Capture app, available for iOS and Android devices, works in a similar way, but is designed to provide a more precise and professional solution for business users in fields such as retail, real estate, and construction or architecture. The Capture app has been available for a few years, and Matterport also sells a number of specialised 3D cameras, as well as offering a Capture service with professional staff who can record scenes and locations for you.
These specialist cameras range in price from $300 to $18,500, but the company has recently released a more affordable option called the Matterport Axis. This is a motorised camera mount that can hold a smartphone and be controlled by the Capture app in order to automatically rotate the phone's camera and capture the scene around it with great precision. These digital scenes -- referred to as 'spaces' -- can then be displayed to clients or colleagues, providing virtual reality walkthroughs of locations such as construction sites, residential properties, or perhaps creating a VR showroom for retail businesses.
The Matterport Capture app for iOS and Android is free to download and use, so you can easily try it out to get a feel for how it works. The app guides you through the process of scanning locations and you can combine multiple scans -- such as a series of rooms in a residential property -- to create your 3D spaces. The free version of the app allows you to create multiple spaces, although only one space at a time can be 'active' for viewing online, but that's enough to give you an idea of how the app works before committing to a subscription.
Matterport's Starter subscription plan costs $9.99/£7.99 per month, and allows you to have five active spaces that can be viewed online, and to assign one other colleague who can also access and manage spaces on your Matterport account. The Pro & Business subscription costs $69/£55 per month, with 25 active spaces and five users on the account, and there are additional options for enterprise users available on enquiry.
It's possible to use the smartphone app to scan scenes by hand -- you just stand on the spot and rotate your body to capture a series of images. However, images shot this way might not align very well, producing untidy and inaccurate results for your final 3D scenes. The Axis device provides a better solution for smartphone users, as it can hold your smartphone firmly in place while the movement of the Axis is directly controlled by the Capture app, delivering greater precision as it rotates to capture the scene. It's highly affordable too, as the Axis costs just $79/£69 on its own. It has a tripod mount built into it, but you can also buy the Axis along with a tripod for $89/£79, or buy a bundle that includes the Axis, tripod and a 12-month Starter subscription for the Capture app for just $149/£119.
Design & features
The Axis mount arrives in a sturdy carrying case that holds the base of the mount, a detachable smartphone holder, and a Bluetooth 'button' that attaches to the Axis and allows the Capture app to remotely control its movement. The motorised mount has a built-in rechargeable battery, which should provide around 24 hours of continuous use, and there's a USB-C cable provided for charging, so you can top it up from a laptop or battery pack when you're working outdoors. Matterport's tripod has a maximum height of 121cm but, as mentioned, there's a 1/4-inch tripod mount built into the base of the Axis (and a 3/8-inch adapter), so photographers can use their own tripod if they prefer.
The holder can be adjusted to a maximum width of 100mm, and Matterport says that it will work with 'virtually any smartphone', although it's too small for even a compact tablet like the iPad Mini (135mm wide). You can also adjust the height and angle of the smartphone, and the Capture app guides you during the initial setup process to make sure that the camera lens is positioned correctly.
The scanning process itself is straightforward, since the Capture app controls the movement of the Axis automatically. You can review your scanned images while they're stored locally on your smartphone, and decide if you want to upload them to your online Matterport account. You can then edit your scans in various ways, adding tags to identify details such as rooms, windows, or construction materials. There's a handy option to create floor-plans that provide an overview of the areas you've scanned, and if your smartphone camera supports LIDAR then the app can use the LIDAR depth data to record accurate measurements within your 3D spaces.
Admittedly, these editing tools can be a little confusing at times -- especially as Matterport tends to use terms such as 'scans', 'models' and 'spaces' interchangeably. However, there's an extensive set of tutorials and templates available to help you get started.
Once you've finished editing your spaces, they can be viewed on your organisation's own website, via the separate Matterport 3D Showcase app, or shared on social media. It's even possible to add your spaces to third-party services such as Google Street View, which gives you greater control over how your business is presented on that service.
With business travel still recovering from COVID-19 restrictions, and many people avoiding unnecessary visits to indoor venues, there's no better time to start exploring the possibilities of VR for your business. There's a little bit of a learning curve involved in editing and managing your 3D spaces, but Matterport's straightforward capture app and affordable Axis mount provide an excellent entry into VR technology that even smaller businesses can afford.
Alternatives to consider
Several apps allow you to stitch multiple smartphone images together to create VR walkthroughs in a similar manner to Matterport Capture. Here's a selection.