The technology has been moved into the frontline against crime thanks to the way it can provide a 360-degree view of any scene.
The Panoscan is a $63,000 American-designed digital camera linked to a laptop computer. The camera rotates on a tripod, scanning and recording everything in its path. Victoria Police have bought two of the cameras primarily because they can scan a crime scene in a full 360 degrees, recording the data in one seamless image. The single photo replaces the many usually taken by police to reproduce an overview of a crime environment.
After recording relevant data, forensic analysts can home in on minute details and study the relationship between important elements at the scene. After the Bali bombing the State Government provided extra funds to the police for its Disaster Victims Identification unit (DVI).
"We put some of the money towards two Panoscan camera systems and they've already been used in anti-terrorism work during the Rugby World Cup," Godfrey Attard, a senior constable with the Crime Scene Unit of Victoria Police Forensic Services Centre, says. "The Panoscans have a huge advantage over other virtual reality systems which needed to take up to 15 photos of, say, the one room, then be stitched together to get a 360-degree view. "We can take one with the Panoscan and it also gives us a 180-degree view above and below the camera. You can actually see the tripod it sits on."
While Attard doesn't see the Panoscan replacing traditional policing methods or still photographs, he does think some of its features are invaluable. "We'll continue to use video and still photos, but this camera is vital because it can record a 3D image of a venue before and after a terrorist strike enabling us to gather vital clues."
Australian law enforcement agencies see the need to photograph an entire crime scene and create an interactive location plan of the whole thing, says Garry Clarke, chief executive officer of Wide X-stream, the Australian multi-media company which imports the camera. "Still images, maps, plans, video or extra support material can be added to build up a complete case which is then documented as a digital file." This kind of virtual-reality presentation reduced the time spent by Queensland police presenting evidence in court by more than half, Clarke says.
As well as being an effective investigation tool, Panoscan has hi-tech commercial applications. It has been used in Australia to create virtual-reality tours of cars and tourist resorts on the internet. The sites have interactive movies which allow users to control exactly what they want to look at. "We've just finished doing one for the latest Toyota RAV4 four-wheel drive," Clarke says. Tourism has also been given a touch-up with the Panoscan creating virtual-reality tours of resorts at Lizard, Bedarra, Heron, Dunk, Wilson and Brampton islands. "But my favourite Panoscan websites are those we've done of jewellery, toys and electrical appliances, where viewers can turn the goods around, open them up and switch them on and off," Clarke says.
While he thinks it highly unlikely Panoscan cameras will ever be cheap enough to seep down to the "mum and dad" market, he believes virtual-reality photography is the next big thing. "These models take multiple shots and the average person can use the software installed in the camera or a PC to blend the images to create one stunning panoramic picture," he says. "That's clearly going to be huge."