360º Immersive Cameras: An Emerging Technology Set to Take Off

360º Immersive Cameras: An Emerging Technology Set to Take Off

Spherical Pano of 100|OCT Cars and Croissants event, Santana Row, San Jose, CA © whirlingtripod.com

Virtual reality imaging has been popular for quite some time. For video, VR technology makes it possible to walk (or fly) through photo-realistic scenes. For still imaging, VR makes it possible to view a scene from all directions. But until recently, VR was very much a highly specialized technology for professional applications.

Before early 2014, two things that had been limiting VR were the cost of the technology involved in capturing the digital data and the complexity of the software required to work with and display it. Very sophisticated and very expensive multi-camera setups, which included anywhere from four to more than 40 cameras, and very sophisticated software were required to capture and combine the scenes.

For example, 360 Designs’ Eye camera system grouped 42 cameras to produce very high-end virtual reality footage. Some of these setups could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the somewhat less complex, and less expensive, VR systems with only a handful of cameras in their array could still cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

One reason these systems are so expensive is the cost of multiple high-end cameras. But some less expensive consumer-oriented, multi-camera 360º immersive systems have been reaching the market. For example, Dome3D has the F360 camera kit, which supports six GoPro cameras. Using the small, considerably less expensive GoPro cams significantly cuts the price down. However, considering the cost of the kit and six cameras, that approach is still out of the financial range of most casual users.

The Rise of Consumer-Oriented 360º Cameras

In 2014, 360º immersive imaging technology became more of an option for casual photographers (and their budgets). Companies started to announce relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use, consumer-oriented 360º immersive technology systems. A number of companies previewed models at last year’s CES. Since then, several models have reached the market.

These consumer-oriented cameras are generally referred to as 360º immersive models rather than VR systems, since they’re somewhat more limited than full VR systems. They either provide more distorted, very wide-angle coverage or more limited coverage along a plane.

In early 2015, YouTube announced it was going to provide support for 360º video, and consumer interest in 360º immersive imaging really picked up.

The Tech

There are a variety of different approaches that companies are using to implement 360º immersive technology. There’s the single-lens approach. With that, there is one lens that provides 360º hemispherical coverage. With the lens pointing upward, coverage takes in everything within a few feet of the camera, in all directions.

There’s the two-lens approach, which uses a hemispherical lens on each side of the camera. Once captured, the two hemispheres are combined into one video file in the camera, for full 360º coverage in all directions.

And there’s the multi-lens approach. However, rather than providing full 360º spherical coverage like multi-camera setups, consumer multi-lens cameras capture content along one plane (horizontally, vertically or at an angle), with blind spots both above and below that plane. It’s a relatively wide plane, so there’s extensive coverage, but there are still blind spots.

The single- and dual-lens systems actually capture more of the surrounding scenes, since they can capture either the hemisphere or the entire sphere, without blind spots. But the very wide-angle lenses in these cameras have a tendency to distort scenes more than multi-lens cameras, which utilize lenses that aren’t quite as wide angle.

Regardless of lens configurations, there are some similarities. For one thing, most of these compact, 360º immersive cameras don’t have viewing screens. That means users can’t monitor what the cameras are capturing directly on the camera. For that, the units have to be coupled with smartphones. But that’s not a major limitation, since coupling cameras and smartphones is a simple process.

Another thing they have in common is that they have fixed-focal lengths, so there’s no zooming (which would destroy the immersive concept). And since they’re fixed focused, everything within the depth of field is in focus, which works well enough for wide to very wide-angle lenses.

   A Trio of 360º Cameras

Ricoh Theta S

Ricoh Theta

A 360º spherical camera that has gotten a lot of attention is Ricoh’s Theta, which comes in two versions. There’s the Theta m15 and the higher end Theta S, which was just named a CES 2016 Best of Innovations Awards winner. It adds, among other things, a manual shooting mode, faster f/2 lenses and 8GB of internal memory, double the Theta m15’s. Shaped somewhat like a thin digital voice recorder and weighing only 4.4 ounces, the original Theta comes in four candy colors while the S is a sleek black.

With its faster lens and additional memory, the Theta S is the way to go if the intent is to capture more than just a few short clips. There are lenses on both sides of the body, each equipped with a 12 megapixel CMOS sensor. The dual captured images are combined into a 14MP file. Shutter speeds go all the way from 60 seconds, for very long exposures, to 1/6,400th of a second for stop-action shooting. Up to 25 minutes of 30-frames-per-sec video can be stored in the internal memory. There is no memory card slot, but with Wi-Fi, captured data can be sent to a smartphone, so that’s not a major limitation. Data is recorded in Full HD at a resolution of 1,920×1,080. Output resolution depends on how captured images are viewed. The S also adds live steaming video for real-time monitoring.

With the Theta, the two captured hemispherical images are stitched in the camera. A Theta Viewer is part of the smartphone app that can be used to control the unit. The S model has a suggested price of $349.95. ricohimaging.com

Kodak PixPro SP360

Kodak also has a 360º spherical camera, the Kodak PixPro SP360 action cam. It looks a little more  like a tiny, yellow construction light beacon than a camera, but it’s actually quite a sophisticated piece of equipment that’s loaded with a whole set of configuration options and capture controls.

Kodak PixPro SP360

It has a single 16 megapixel CMOS sensor and an f/2.8 ultrawide lens with the 35mm equivalent coverage of 8.25mm. As might be expected with such a wide-angle lens, captured images and video are distorted, especially for nearby objects. It supports NFC (tap transfer) and Wi-Fi for easy coupling with smartphones, for operational control and viewing captured content.

The ISO is set automatically from 100 to 800. It has a still image burst mode, making it possible to capture in full res at up to 10 frames per second. When the SP360 is turned so that the lens faces sideways, it can capture Full HD video. It also has a built-in motion sensor, so it can be used as a security or monitoring device.

Captured video is stored on removable microSD and microSDHC cards, and once the data is downloaded to a computer, the accompanying software can be used to generate a variety of viewing and output formats. These include a full circular, 360º video as well as segmented views, where two filmstrips paired on the screen showing 180º opposite views of the captured video can be navigated through.

The unit is freezeproof (14º F), shockproof plus dust and water resistant, but not waterproof. A separate underwater housing is available for shooting in water, which is one of the items included in the Extreme Accessories Pack. The SP360 action cam is offered by JK Imaging, a Kodak licensee, and has a list price of $299.99. There are also numerous SP360 accessories available. kodakpixpro.com

Giroptic 360cam

Another camera with a lot of press since it was first announced in 2014 is the Giroptic 360cam.  It is made by the French company Giroptic. It’s a three-lens system, with each lens providing 180º coverage. This makes it possible to significantly overlap images for more seamless 360º stitching.

Giroptic 360cam

The 360cam looks a bit like an alien amphibian. With three sensors, it can capture 360º video footage at 2,048×1,024-pixel (2K) resolution at up to 30 fps. Still images have an even higher resolution of 4,096×2,048 pixels (4K). The images are combined automatically into standard MP4 files for video or into jpegs for still images.

The reason this cam has gotten a lot of press is that it has some interesting capabilities. For example, it has three rather than just a single microphone for full directional audio. Like the Theta S, it can be used to stream video directly. It can also be used as a security camera. It can be twisted into a standard light socket, such as a ceiling fixture. When used that way, it doesn’t even need a battery. It pulls its power directly from the socket while monitoring everything in the room. It, too, has a dedicated smartphone app for remote control and live preview via Wi-Fi.

But there have been some delays in getting the 360cam to the market. At CES last year, the company announced it would be shipping by March. That didn’t happen. A company spokesperson told me via e-mail that getting production going proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Initial production for units going to early backers had started when I was putting this piece together. Full production should be under way by the time it’s in print. The preproduction price of the Giroptic 360cam, which will come in a host of colors, is $499. giroptic.com

At this point, consumer 360º imaging is still in its infancy. The distortion in the images still limits its applicability. But, as with so many aspects of technology, the category is expected to develop rapidly. Many of the shortcomings of current models are expected to be improved as new generations hit the market in the next year or so.