Virtual Tours for Businesses Explained

People have been calling your business, flooding your emails, and even showing up at your door to sell you a 'virtual tour'. Who are these people, what is a virtual tour, and why might you need one?

The goal of this piece is to demystify 360° photography and virtual tours for business owners and any other interested parties. We'll glance over the basics of how they're made in case your virtual tour isn't working and you need help, or even if you decide to make one on your own.

What is 360° photography?

An Insta360 Pro camera which photographs and takes video in 8k 360° and 6k 3D 360°.

A photography technique in which multiple images are combined to capture a scene in every direction. This process requires either a special camera, or a special process with a regular camera.

The resulting product is an 'equirectangular' image which can be decoded by software making it interactive, this generally happens automatically so you don't need to worry about it- but I'll still cover it briefly in a later section.

The aforementioned interactivity includes looking around within images and navigating through 'connected' images. Interactive 360° images are natively supported by Google, Facebook, Flickr, and more. Every day more websites support interactive 360° images, and any website can be lightly modified to support interactive 360° images (or you can just embed them). If you have a personal or business website, there are a million ways to get 360° images on your site.

When two or more 360° images are connected, they are referred to as a 'virtual tour'.

Why do businesses get virtual tours?

Businesses use virtual tours because it increases sales volume and probability. It is a very effective marketing tool for a variety of reasons- in part because it increases the chances that a consumer will find your business online, and in part because of the psychological effects it has on viewers. More on this below!

There are two primary types of businesses that gain the most from getting a virtual tour: brick and mortar businesses, and real estate businesses.

A brick and mortar business storefront.

Brick and Mortar Businesses

+ Increases likelihood of an in-person visit *

+ Increases online discovery (business exists in more places, more links and thumbnails)

+ Improves Google ranking (improves SEO)

+ Boosts credibility

+ Simulated presence results in positive attitudes towards a location **

A classic real estate 'for sale' sign.

Real Estate Businesses

+ Maximizes exposure to listings

+ Available 24/7

+ Viewable from anywhere in the world (accessibility)

+ Saves realtor time, clients can view property independently

+ Simulated presence results in positive attitudes towards a location **

* Ipsos, 2014; Google independent study, 2015** Palmer, Rosch, & Chase 1981; Gerrig 1993; Green & Brock 2000; Khalil & McBeath 2006; Ghose & Liu 2013

How are virtual tours created?

Step 1: Photography

Find a photographer. The best practice is to find a Google Street View Trusted photographer- somebody that has uploaded more than 50 Street View photos meeting Google's quality standards. This is simply an acknowledgement from Google that a photographer has demonstrated basic 360° photography competence.

Street View Trusted photographers are not employees of Google.

This is my badge, I love it.

A Google Maps Street View Trusted badge.

To be clear, anyone is allowed to post pictures, 360° or otherwise, to Google. Furthermore, even cellphones are capable of taking 360° pictures, they just won't be professional quality.

Depending on the complexity of the project and the number of photos taken, the photography session can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, the average photoshoot is under 1 hour. Then, depending on the next steps and the desired degree of photo editing, a business can expect their photos/virtual tours to be up within 2-9 days, the average time needed is 3-5 days.

This is normally the only step that the business sees, the next steps are what happen behind the scenes.

The gif below shows the pictures which will eventually compose a single 360° photo

A gif cycling through the six images which will be stitched together to create a 360° image.

Step 2: Stitching

Computers like image files that have two dimensions, X by Y. So, the previous pictures need to be squished together to form a rectangular image which contains all the pixels from the original photos. They are combined, or 'stitched', into an equirectangular image.

The images are warped in such a way that they appear 'unwarped' when made spherical. The stitching process can occur within the camera at the moment the photo is taken, or at a later date on computer with special software. Stitching on a computer will provide more control and likely yield better results.

This is a simplified equirectangular map. This is how world maps are made too, imagine area 5 is Antarctica.

A simplified representation of how multiple images are stitched together into one equirectangular image.

The picture below is an actual equirectangular image in its non-interactive form.

An equirectangular image of a beautiful summer day on Wolfgangsee in Salzburg, Austria.

Step 3: EXIF Data

This step is the most common stumbling block for the inexperienced . Digital images have something called EXIF data. This data contains all the information about the image such as where and when it was taken, what its format is, and how a program should handle it. An image will not display properly if the EXIF data is false or incomplete. EXIF Data is generally added to photo files automatically, but sometimes it gets removed, this depends entirely on the programs being used. Nothing that can't be fixed.

How to fix EXIF data for a 360° photo:

  1. Open ExifToolGui
  2. Load GPano into the workspace definition file
  3. Select the pictures that need fixing (in the middle window)
  4. Type "equirectangular" in Projection Type, press Enter
  5. Type "True" in Use Panoramic Viewer, press Enter
  6. Click Save

NOTE: Remove any dashes before "equirectangular" and "True", otherwise Facebook won't recognize the image as 360°

When a photo has the right set of digital attributes within the EXIF data, the equirectangular image will be painted onto the inside of a digital sphere. The warping from Step 1 ensures that when placed in the sphere, the proportions will match reality. The viewer then sees the image from inside the sphere, and can click and drag the mouse to look around.

A simple representation of an equirectangular image in spherical form. The viewer is 'inside' the sphere.

A simple representation of an equirectangular image after transformation into a sphere.

Try looking around in the picture below. This is the previous image with the correct EXIF data in a program that knows how to handle the image (Google Maps).

Step 4: Tour Creation

Various photo spheres can be linked together to simulate travelling through a scene. For this step you will need special software intended for virtual tour creation. The two most general software options are the Google platform, or a third party tour creation program (the next section will help you choose a specific program). Overall, this is relatively straight forward, and will just require some tinkering.

A simplified representation of a Virtual Tour layout.

A simple representation of multiple 'photo spheres' connected into a virtual tour.

The challenge is to get all the images located correctly relative to each other. If the photos have GPS EXIF data, some of the work is already done for you! But let's say you don't, or it's not precise enough. The quickest way to position your images is to use triangulation.

How to position images in a virtual tour without GPS data:

  1. Connect three images
  2. Check and correct the location of image #3 from the perspective of images #1 and #2
  3. Repeat for the other images
  4. Repeat process to fine tune locations
  5. Use the locations of images #1, #2, and #3 to place remaining images

NOTE: If your are placing the images on a map, one or more images may be near a visible landmark. Starting with these images in your triangulation group will make the process much easier.

Try clicking the arrows in the image below to navigate through the scene.

Step 5: Uploading

Host the tour online. This step will be different based on which program you are using, consult their instructions. Luckily, it's mostly drag and drop now-a-days.

Note: If your are using Google to host the tour, you will upload the images prior to creating the tour.

Which virtual tour program should I use?

A brick and mortar business storefront.

Brick and Mortar Businesses

Use The Google Platform


+ Integrates with Google My Business info

+ Improves Google ranking

+ Associates with physical location on Google Maps

+ Publicly available

Cost to use software: Free

A classic real estate 'for sale' sign.

Real Estate Businesses

Use Third Party Software


+ Appears only on your site

+ Offers additional functionality

+ More privacy/sharing options

+ Less public

Cost to use software: Not Free

Helping people makes me feel good- if I can explain anything to you in more depth, or address something not covered in this article, email and I'll do what I can to help!