Villanova wraps up filming for virtual tour of St. Peter's Basilica


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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In the enormous interior of Christianity's largest church, a tiny black camera perched on a tall tripod was quietly whirring, mapping bit by bit almost every detail inside St. Peter's Basilica.

While thousands of tourists streamed through the basilica Jan. 27, a special team from Villanova University was cordoned off from the crowds, wrapping up the last day of shooting images for one of several virtual tour projects they have been producing for the Vatican.

"As the camera goes around it's taking at each angle setting 30 pictures, then it'll tilt down and take another 30 pictures," explained Robert Beck, chairman of the department of computer sciences and one of many Villanova staff members and students involved in the virtual tour project.

A battery-powered rig gently guides the camera, tilting it up and down in 180-degree arcs and then rotating it 360 degrees. In this way the camera captures a series of images that will later be stitched together into a complete domelike image.

Over two days of shooting, the rig was positioned in about 12 different parts of the basilica and photographed the papal altar, the apse, both transepts, the nave and several of the chapels, Beck told Catholic News Service.

"To take the pictures is reasonably quick," said Frank Klassner, Villanova professor of computing sciences, who provided technical assistance in the development of the virtual tours.

"To stitch them together, to put them on the Web takes much longer," he said.

It takes from one to two weeks to process, color-correct and adjust distortions from the lens in the hundreds of photo images that are shot in one location, "so everything has crisp, clear lines, so you can zoom in to high-quality" photographic images of the basilica's interior, he said.

Klassner and Beck predicted the virtual tour of St. Peter's Basilica would be completed for Vatican review and approval by early summer.

Two virtual tours are already on the Vatican's Web site: the basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Viewers can choose a specific location and be transported inside one of the basilicas, turn in any direction and zoom in close -- so close that the digital view is clearer and steadier than the one a tourist on the spot would get using high-powered binoculars.

The project was the brainchild of Villanova professor Paul Wilson, who has more than 40 years of experience in photography.

The team from Villanova, a Catholic university based in Pennsylvania, includes students interning at the Vatican's Internet office and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. It has already photographed the Sistine Chapel, the Basilica of St. Mary Major and the Vatican's Necropolis of St. Rosa for the virtual tour project.

Klassner said the project was designed to bring the visual impact of the sites to a wider audience, and kindle their interest in the architecture, art and history of the sacred places.