Big Changes Ahead for Virtual Guidebooks

(October 29, 2008)

I haven't posted to this blog in six months and people have asked whether I am still actively developing the site. The answer is yes, emphatically YES, Don Bain's Virtual Guidebooks will be growing and evolving faster than ever in the next year! Let me catch up now with news and plans for the future.

[NOTE: as of October 2011 the site has been renamed Don Bain's 360° Panoramas, but the content remains the same.]

First, a very major change in my life. After a year of increasing dissatisfaction I left my job at the University of California (after 22 years), effective July 1. The new Geography department chairman's idea of what my job should be was completely different than mine, and was unacceptable to me. So I quit. Technically, I retired, so I have a guaranteed income and benefits - but the wonderful thing is that now I have full time to devote to my other projects.

Of course the first thing I did with my new freedom was to hit the road. Since April (when I made the decision and started using up accrued vacation time) I have taken six long photography trips, which I will describe below. I plan to stay at home during November and December (just a few short trips) to catch up on the pictures I have taken, develop the web site, and reinvigorate the World Wide Panorama.

Soon after I left the university the department chair broke his promise to continue to sponsor the World Wide Panorama by providing a free server. It was not too much of a surprise - he hadn't kept his other promises either, and we were prepared. Landis Bennett and I (co-founders of the WWP) had already set up a non-profit corporation, the World Wide Panorama Foundation, to take over responsibility for the project. There is a lot of work to be done, but I see a bright future for this international collaboration and showcase for VR photography. The first appearance of the new WWP will be the "Best of 2008" event, appearing January 1, 2009.

The trips I have been taking will add almost a thousand new VR panoramas to the Virtual Guidebooks site. But before I sketch out where I went and what I saw, let me mention the behind-the-scenes changes being made to the site.

When I initiated Virtual Guidebooks in late 1999 all I knew was html, so the site was built that way. It got less and less reasonable to maintain in this form (handcrafted static html pages) as it grew to a thousand panoramas, then two thousand, then I added fullscreen versions, and growth continued to its present 6000. The result has been increasing lag time in getting new panoramas up on the site, a lack of flexibilty in page design and contents, and an awful lot of work to make changes or additions.

The modern solution of course is to convert to a database-driven model. So I am currently creating a whole new version of the site with PHP and MySQL, learning as I go. It is slow and at times tedious, but also interesting -- and every bit of progress is exciting. I dare not predict when the project will be complete, or even whether the conversion will be in stages or all at once. But I will discuss it in some future blog post.

Spring Break in March, when I was still acting like an employee, was spent mostly in the Mojave Desert. No special wildflower displays this year, but it gave me a very welcome chance to think about my future, and escape from the unpleasant situation developing at work. Expect over a hundred new panos of East Mojave National Preserve, Laughlin and Oatman on the Colorado River, and Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas.

I managed another week-long trip in late April, catching the end of wildflower season in the South Coast Ranges and revisiting areas along the central coast and El Camino Real in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. An easy, pleasant trip, with time to work on some new techniques. Another hundred new panos.

I took off half of May for a long trip through the spectacular parklands of the Colorado Plateau in Utah - Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, and the Kolob Canyons of Zion. I took about 150 panoramas, most of which are finished but will probably not be posted to the site until the big database project is further along.

My most ambitous trip, one I have been planning for a long time, took most of the month of July. I followed the Oregon Trail eastwards (i.e. backwards) from Salt Lake City all the way to Independence, Missouri, focusing on history and rural landscapes. This was mostly new country for me, including nearly two weeks in Nebraska. I liked it a lot, but let me warn you that camping there in the summer requires an air-conditioned motorhome with screened windows!

Actually, I was following the intertwined routes of the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail, the original transcontinental railroad, and the Pony Express. I saw a lot of old wagon ruts, many modest frontier buildings, scenery that was less spectacular than further west, very nice small towns and just two cities (Omaha and Salt Lake). On the way back I toured the Black Hills of South Dakota, another state new to me. In all I shot almost 400 panoramas!

I took barely a week to recover then headed north for the last trip of the summer. First a few days in Redwood National Park (one of my very favorite places), then up the Oregon Coast and inland to Portland. Another 150 panos.

Most of September slipped by while I was distracted with health issues, a major home repair project and similar mundane concerns. But I managed one more trip, a mid-October quest for fall color. I have been to Zion Canyon when it was just unbelievable - in addition to the always-colorful sandstone, there were brilliant yellow cottonwoods and aspen, orange Gambel oaks and red canyon maples. So I headed for Utah. But I found everything still green in Zion, too early by almost a month, and the aspens at Cedar Breaks already bare, a week too late.

It was a great trip nevertheless. In addition to Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks I spent a day at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, hiking in the bristlecone pine forest at 10,000 feet, then drove diagonally across the sparsely inhabited heart of Nevada from Ely to Tonopah. Finally three days in Owens Valley (with some fall color) and a day in the White Mountains shooting still more ancient bristlecone pines.

So keep checking this blog and this site for major changes. My goal is to have the databased version of Virtual Guidebooks launched and all this summer's panos up by the end of 2008.

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