Samsung and LG (LGCEY) recently rolled out their latest smartphones, the Galaxy S7 and the G5, respectively. Outside of touting the respective specifications of both smartphones, each company announced a 360-degree camera.
As its name implies, a 360-degree is capable of recording video and capturing photos of your entire surroundings with a single press of the button.
The end result is a spherical recreation, viewable using a virtual reality headset such as Samsung’s (SSNLF) Gear VR or LG’s soon-to-be-released 360 VR.
With neither camera available quite yet, I was curious: Are 360-degree cameras merely a gimmick, a fun-looking accessory with little utility? Or will 360-degree cameras soon become the standard for capturing family gatherings, selfies with celebrities, and our Sunday brunches?
To find out, I spent the last week experimenting and using a 360-degree camera, the Ricoh Theta S.
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The Theta S has a slender, TV remote-like layout broken up by two bumps near the top of the device. Under each bump is a 12-megapixel camera, capable of capturing 180-degree videos or photos. Blue and red status lights blink on the front of the camera, just below the shutter button. On the right side, you’ll find three buttons, each one serving a specific function: controlling power, Wi-Fi, and toggling between photo and video modes.
Taking a photos with the Theta S is simple. Power it on and press the shutter button. A familiar shutter sound is played through the speaker found on the top of the camera when the photo is taken. Recording a video is done in a similar fashion, requiring you to change capture modes. You can quickly and easily view the current capture mode as well as the status of the device’s own Wi-Fi connection thanks to corresponding status lights.
The Theta S houses eight gigabytes of internal storage, but it isn’t expandable. Syncing and charging the Theta S is done through a microUSB port on the bottom of the camera.
For the most part, the Theta S does exactly what it promises. It captures decent photos and videos, in spherical form, with ease. There’s no fussing with fancy setups or multiple pieces of equipment.
All of the magic, so to speak, of combining the two photos and videos together into one big, interactive file is done via software. You can sync the camera to an iOS or Android device and use one of the three different applications to control the camera, view photos, or edit your video. Likewise, there’s a simple app for PC or Mac that will convert the otherwise flat files into something that can be shared.
As great as all of that sounds, the current sharing options are incredibly limited. If you want to share a 360-degree video, allowing viewers to click or pan in any direction, you’re limited to Facebook (FB) or YouTube (GOOGL). For its part, Ricoh offers its own website that makes sharing interactive photos possible to places such as Twitter (TWTR), Facebook, or even Tumblr.
For example, you can view one photo I uploaded to the Theta360 website. Click or drag your mouse from side to side, up and down, and view my office, complete with a grumpy dog. Uploading your photos and videos to the specialized website takes care of only one part of the problem.
Say you take a photo and want to share it to Instagram, you’re going to be disappointed. Right now, options are limited to cropping a weird, circular section of the photo (like this) or posting a flattened version of the photo that is full of distortion and abnormalities, such as those in this photo.
Notice how my arm is on the right side of the photo, but also the left side? Without proper software support, the photos and videos captured with a 360-degree camera aren’t all that impressive.
For more on virtual reality, watch:
Being discouraged over the lack of easy sharing options, I think, will be a sentiment of any 360-degree camera manufacturer and owner for the foreseeable future.
When you are able to capture a video worth sharing, like dyeing Easter eggs with your kids, sharing that video with family members is something special. This past week I captured one such video, and it was a hit. Those who viewed the video were able to hold up their phone and physically move the phone to change what they were seeing; much in the same way if they were wearing a VR headset.
The experience of dyeing Easter eggs was something not only I enjoyed sharing, but something that put smiles on the faces of family members who live out-of-town the moment they started watching. Sure, a more traditional video would likely have done the same. They’re my family, and the love my kids, after all. But the experience made them feel as if they were at the table with us. I guess that’s what the big draw to virtual reality is as a whole, right? Make you feel like you’re somewhere you’re not. And the Theta S provides a streamlined method for creating those experiences.
At $350, the Theta S isn’t cheap. It’s not something you’re going to go out and buy, nor would I recommend the average person buy it at the moment. It’s not Ricoh’s fault, and it certainly won’t be Samsung’s or LG’s faults when they inevitably suffer from the same roadblocks. Sharing 360-degree images or videos just isn’t easy right now, and that’s unfortunate.
Right now, 360-degree cameras are more novelty than must-have gadget. A novelty, however, that’s sure to gain traction as more technology companies begin experimenting with the new medium.