Virtual Home Tours:

You can't judge a book by its cover, so why should home buyers have to decide whether they'd like to tour a house based solely on a picture of its exterior?

Starting this week, Web-based real estate listing service ListingLink will give shoppers an inside view of the homes featured on its site,, using a new technique for taking panoramic pictures.

That should make house-hunting much more efficient, said Stephen Bedikian, vice president of marketing and strategic planning for the Santa Monica real estate firm (in which Los Angeles Times parent Times Mirror Co. is an investor): "Agents believe this could cut down on walk-through traffic by 50% or more."

The technology that makes this possible comes from a San Jose start-up called Be Here. The company has devised a dual-mirrored contraption that attaches to a camera like a zoom lens and captures a 360-degree panoramic photo with one click. Once the image is posted on the Internet, Web surfers can use a virtual reality viewer like QuickTimeVR or RealSpace Viewer to choose where they want to look.

Such panoramic pictures are usually constructed from a series of still photos and blended together with a digital editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. But it's a time-consuming process, and visible seams between individual photos can sometimes be distracting. Be Here's Portal S1 system offers a simpler solution because it can capture all sides of a scene in a single photo.

The Portal S1 sells for $9,995, and the PanImage software costs an additional $500. Be Here has sold 12 of the devices since they went on sale in June, said Mark Hilton, the company's vice president of marketing.

ListingLink is one of Be Here's first customers to use the technology in a systematic way. The other is Associated Press, which used its Portal S1 to photograph time trials for the Indianapolis 500.

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