To provide some context

During the summer of 2017, I found myself working as a software engineering intern at CyArk, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a online, 3D library of the world’s cultural heritage sites. To do so, they use various technologies such as 3D scanners to create point clouds and photogrammetry tools to collect data on depth and color to create a 3D model for the site.

The problem to solve

To be able to create incredibly accurate and defined 3D models, each project requires a large amount of pictures. To automate this process, CyArk’s photogrammetry team uses a GigaPan EPIC Pro camera mount that will take a series of panoramic pictures given some configuration on the camera and a set of bounds to capture within. Although the GigaPan significantly improved the workflow, it lacked certain features that could further optimize the needs of the photogrammetry team.

To start, the photogrammetry team rotates between a small set of cameras and lens. And for each switch, they must reconfigure the GigaPan so that it knows the field of view of the device it’s carrying. During this reconfiguration process, the team must navigate through a nested series of menus using a keypad and a small LCD screen.

Additionally, in the event that a projectile flies by the camera and obscures the image, the team must manually pan and tilt the GigaPan back to that location to retake the shot. This can be an incredibly slow process; in order to provide precision and torque, the GigaPan sacrifices speed.

The solution

In order to meet the needs of the photogrammetry team, it was obvious that we needed to add extra features to the GigaPan. The question, then, was how?

Why don’t you just change the embedded software?

Now let me be honest. At this point in time, I knew nothing about embedded systems or how to write programs for them. This bias played a large part in steering me away from that direction. It did, however, steer me towards a mobile solution. What if I made an app that could interact with the GigaPan via an additional layer of abstraction?

To address the first problem, a mobile app would lessen the amount of effort needed to navigate through nested menus with a keypad, going through one option at a time. The user could easily scroll through a list instead. Secondly, it would be easy to set up a small database within the app to store common camera configurations. The solution would minimally touch the existing device while providing a more direct way to interact with the mount.

Conveniently enough for me, the photogrammetry team uses iPads in the field.

The goal, then, was to hack the GigaPan and make hardware changes to it such that a mobile device could connect to the mount via Bluetooth. Then, all that was left was to create a mobile app that could interact with the mount while providing the necessary features.