Aspen’s Ultimate Taxi explores the virtual frontier

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A 360-degree view features Ultimate Taxi driver Jon Barnes, right, with his passengers on a recent trip.
Jon Barnes/courtesy photo |


The Ultimate Taxi’s 360-degree videos and photographs can be viewed at

Aspen’s Ultimate Taxi driver is the first to offer a cab ride in virtual reality.

Jon Barnes, the owner and operator of the Ultimate Taxi, shopped through eBay this spring to acquire a Samsung 360-degree camera from Korea before it is offered in the U.S. market. He’s taking panoramic photos and experimenting with video that does justice to the already exhilarating and bizarre trip riders experience in his taxi.

He mounts the 360-degree camera on a monopod on the backseat floor close to where the passengers sit. He takes hemispheric photos and video. He can download photos onto his phone seconds after they are taken. The phone stitches them together. Then passengers wearing virtual reality goggles can view them just a few minutes after the pictures were taken. The goggles provide the uncanny experience of replaying where you were just a short time ago, with 3D, 360-degree views.

The virtual reality video is a work in progress. It takes longer to download, stitch, edit, produce and upload, so passengers can’t immediately watch virtual reality video of their ride, at least not yet.

A time capsule

Barnes downloads the 360-degree photos and video on his website and Facebook page. Viewers have the unique ability to use their cursor to change perspectives and angles of their view.

“It’s almost like a time capsule, you know what I’m saying?” Barnes said.

He is thrilled at the prospect of capturing the taxi ride of a 10-year-old passenger on 360-degree video. A couple of generations from now, that person’s 10-year-old grandchild could watch the video with virtual reality goggles and get a true sense of what their grandparent was like at their age, he said.

“It’s a new form of entertainment and a new form of photography,” he said. “The cab is a colorful way to demonstrate the technology.”

Barnes has embraced technology for more than 30 years. He bought a classic yellow taxi cab in 1983 and started working the night shift in Aspen for an operator. He eventually added a keyboard in the front passenger seat along with a synthesizer and drum machine that allowed him to play along with a booming sound system. “At first it was just to entertain me between taxi fares,” he said, adding that he never aimed to be the “goofy, psychedelic taxi driver.”

But he also doesn’t like to get bored. He realized the additions to his taxi appealed to customers. He added a laser show, a disco ball and dry ice fog. By 1990, he left the taxi company and went on his own. The Ultimate Taxi was officially more entertainment than transportation.

Keeping it fresh

Barnes is an amateur photographer and computer geek, so he added those skills into the strange mix. He has a video screen that rolls down between him and the backseat passengers. As lights are flashing and music is blaring, the screen shows a roller coaster track and the passengers’ view is from the front seat. As their “coaster car” zooms downhill and chugs uphill, Barnes simulates the action with accelerating or braking the taxi, creating a surreal effect. Another video is a virtual tour of the Roaring Fork Valley — showing a high-speed landing at Aspen airport, cruise down Highway 82 and a ride up the Big Burn Chairlift at Snowmass.

Passengers have been stars of their own show for years. With their permission, he streams live video of their ride to his website. They can check it out with just a few minutes delay or relive the moments via the archive.

Now with the 360-degree camera, the still images and video will be tremendously enhanced and offer a whole new dimension to the experience.

For the standard Ultimate Taxi fee, passengers will get the photosphere images. It will cost extra for videosphere because of the effort involved. He’s already done a few for free to get the hang of it.

The new direction is a way “to keep it fresh for me rather than making more money,” Barnes said. “At least I’m having fun, which is why I built the Ultimate Taxi.”

Whether his customers like the experience, he said, “It will be memorable.”