Remember the very first days of projected film? “Roundhay Garden Scene,” “Arrival of a Train,” “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” — these films were nothing more than a camera placed in a single position to capture a moment in time, and yet it was enough to render the audience awestruck and craving for more. It’s almost like we’re back there again with VR and 360 video. Sure, there are already detailed and complex productions showcasing this cutting edge of technology. Yet, 360 video is still so young and so unknown that you could drop a camera down virtually anywhere and capture the simplest of scenes, and most viewers would be totally amazed by watching it.
Still being in its infancy, 360 technology is spreading in many different directions, all on a quest to find out what works and what doesn’t and to ultimately discover the best technologies out there for your buck. As you’ll see, now is a great time to purchase a spherical camera. There’s such a tremendous range in prices and quality that no matter what your needs, you can find something that fits. In practice, we will say that there is still a good distance to travel, particularly in stitching methods, optics exploration and even simple things like terminology. Still, the technology has grown up enough that you can’t really go wrong if you do your research and buy the camera that best suits your needs.
What is a Spherical Video Camera?
Let’s first define what we’re talking about. You’re going to notice that the terms 360 video and spherical video are often used to refer to the same thing, but logically, there’s an easy differentiation. The former records what is essentially a torus leaving a hole at the zenith and nadir, and the latter records everything in a near-perfect 360×360 sphere around the point that is the camera. Marketing hype may use these labels interchangeably though, even throwing in the completely inaccurate VR for more confusion. So, if direct up and down matters to you, then pay attention to the details of the radial specifications. What you’ll find is that the fewer lenses there are in the camera, the less detail you’ll get in the upper and lower extremes. This is not necessarily a bad thing though, as most action is never going to take place in those directions, and if you don’t want your audience looking in that direction, there’s no need to waste resources capturing that space. In this article we’ll cover a bit of both, presenting the details as listed by the manufacturer’s product outlines.
You’re going to notice that the terms 360 video and spherical video are often used to refer to the same thing, but logically, there’s an easy differentiation.
In addition to the number of sensors and lenses, you’re going to find that the resolution will be a major determining factor in price — and they don’t necessarily correlate. You may indeed prefer a two-sensor 8K camera over a gestalt of six or eight HD sensors. Besides the obvious points of failure, one may need less post-processing or stitching time before you can edit. One may be able to live stream its content while the other may need extra horsepower, thus justifying a significant price jump, to do the same thing.
Perhaps size is an issue. There are some tremendous options this year for 360 and spherical action cams, including tracking abilities and auto removal of the camera mount. There are cameras that sit on top of your cell phone and more than one touting the mantra of “smallest 360 camera ever.” We’re going to avoid that controversy, because let’s be honest, after a certain point, they become so close that which one is truly the smallest really doesn’t matter. There are other features that will make a bigger difference in the video you capture. We’ll do our best to point out some of the highlights with a focus on what’s new and fresh in 2017.
A Note on the Details
You’ll notice in the grid that there are a few bits of information “not specified”. Not all companies are in the habit of talking about the fine details of their cameras, and some to a lesser extent than others. Likewise, many of the cameras are flexible, and the features and specifications will change based on how you are shooting. Live streaming, frame rate and more will in most cases impact the output specifications. Details will also change for still images and planar images. Whenever possible, we’ve focused on the spherical video information at the maximum quality of the device.
That said, let’s dive into the spherical cameras of 2017.
At the time of this writing, the 360Fly 4K Pro is still in pre-release. The specs seem to be close to final however, warranting a mention here. It sports a 360×240-degree view dome-type lens with HDMI and USB outputs in a rugged metal housing. There will be a dual camera setup offering that will purportedly capture 3D stereoscopic and spherical modes.
This year saw the launch of the Twin line, a dual lens system similar to Ricoh’s Theta. It features two 180-degree F2.2 fisheye lenses, with instant live streaming up to 3K and real time internal stitching. Detu also recently released an upgrade to the F4, titled the F4 Plus. Detu also released an 8K 360 camera, currently with one of the lowest prices for this resolution.
Released in May, the VIRB 360 is an incredibly rugged action camera with additional sensors that will overlay data onto your images. It supports voice control and three modes of image stabilization.
The new GoPro Fusion camera is another action camera with stabilization, waterproofing to 16 feet, voice control and a feature it calls “overcapture,” which processes the footage to optimally display the action in flat imagery rather than 360 video. In principle, it’s similar to Insta360’s Smart Track. You can also add a great two year warranty, so if it breaks, they replace it.
With a full line release from the Nano to the One and the Pro, Insta360 strives to serve all corners of the market spectrum. The Nano is a phone add-on for your iPhone while the Air takes care of Android users. The One is a 4K camera supporting smart tracking, live streaming and image stabilization. It also features Bullet time, a method that puts you in the center while the camera circles around you. It converts from a standalone to a phone add-on camera. The Pro utilizes six lenses to support 8K and 3D video capture along with modern high-speed connections and real time previewing.
Focusing on the professional end of the market, the Obsidian series has garnered high praise from CES 2017 and more. The Obsidian Go is a six camera, 8K system with extended shooting duration capability. Even more impressive are the Obsidian R and S twins. The former is designed for high resolution while the latter is built for speed.
In 2017, Kodak released the PixPro Orbit 360 4K VR, an upgraded version of their previous system complete with water resistance as well as shock and freeze tolerance — all at an increased resolution.
The KeyMission360 action camera is ideal for underwater exploration. Yes folks, you’re reading that right. That’s 98 feet of waterproofing! Like many cameras with real time previewing, it sports HDMI output.
With four lenses and four microphones, live streaming capability and 4K images, the Orah 4i is bound to impress while remaining extremely simple to operate.
Releasing three products to the Theta line, Ricoh has re-defined its consumer platform. The SC handles the day to day, the S can stream your content live, and the V brings 4K to the mix.
One of the most anticipated releases this year, the Gear 360 4K VR model packs a resolution bump, live streaming, geotagging and time-lapse into a small and comfortable form factor. It’s also one of the few cameras in this roundup using H.265.
With eight cameras, four mics, a MicroSD card, tripod, headset, editing software and more, the Vuze VR Kit 2017 is a package that simply cannot be ignored. 2D and 3D await.
The Mijia 360 Sphere camera leaps into action as one of the smallest action cameras available. The camera features an impressive listing of operating tolerances and stabilization sensors.
If you count the two spares that come with the purchase, the Halo VR has more than double the number of cameras of any other camera in the roundup. Squarely in the professional realm, the system is made for modularity.
Rounding out our high end and our coverage overall, are the S1 Pro and the V1 Pro, 6K and 8K models for the professional market. Both feature multiple 4/3 inch sensors, Z-log support, Gigabit Ethernet, and adjustable apertures.
Trends and Observations
As mentioned in the beginning, if you’re a beginner just wanting to wet your palate or a VR studio in dire need of a system for your 8K documentary, these cameras have got you covered. The major differences are in the image resolution and quality. Most cameras in the roundup support some sort of live streaming, and most will interface with an app on your smartphone for operation and desktop for post-processing. Real-time previewing is a feature to look for. Most of the action cameras will feature some level of tolerances out of the box. Only one or two require external cases or equipment for minimal requirements.
While you’ll notice that the higher end cameras will feature HDMI and Ethernet ports as well as Wi-Fi, almost all the cameras will limit the quality when streaming. Notice too that the more lenses your camera has, the more micro SD cards you may need. Where we would like to see some improvement is in audio support. Less than half our cameras support 360 sound, which is a big deal in immersive video. Expect also to see a greater shift in the usage of H.265 over the next year, as well as continued improvements to stitching quality. Definitely some do it better than others, and some are certainly faster than others. Finally, expect greater integration with the more popular editing solutions on the market. It’s nice that these companies support some level of post-production, but it’s time these systems think a little less locally and a little more globally. In the meantime, don’t let any of that stop you from jumping into the market now. Something in today’s spherical camera market is bound to meet — and probably exceed — your expectations at a reasonable price point. This still-young market is already both diverse and innovative. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Peter Zunitch is a video editor for Medscape/WebMD.
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