Are 360-degree cameras just a gimmick?

by Peter Griffin / 09 December, 2017
A panorama of Italy’s Amalfi City. Photo/Getty Images

A panorama of Italy’s Amalfi City. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - 360-degree cameras
If you’ve visited a tourist hotspot recently, you might have noticed a new device competing with panning smartphones and extended selfie sticks – the 360-degree camera.

It looks like a web camera you’d buy for your computer, a golf-ball-shaped gadget with curved fish-eye lenses on either side that record everything around you and stitch the images together almost seamlessly.

I was on holiday in the bustling town of Positano on Italy’s Amalfi Coast recently when I spotted a 360-cam positioned conspicuously on a stone pillar near the beautifully groomed beach. The owner was sitting out of shot several metres away, but keeping a close eye on his camera as it recorded the deep-blue Mediterranean on one side and the postcard-perfect old town clinging to the hillside on the other.

I’ve done exactly the same thing on Wellington’s waterfront using the Samsung Gear 360, one of the leading 360-degree cameras on the market, to capture video of Oriental Bay at twilight.

The real genius of 360-degree photos and videos becomes apparent when you view the results in the realm of virtual reality.

Strapping on Samsung’s Gear VR headset, I was able to view all those wrap-around Wellington waterfront videos as they were intended to be seen, with me in the middle moving my head to survey the scene.

There’s a heightened immersion and drama to the effect, which is being exploited by everyone from underwater videographers to Google, which for years has used 360-degree cameras to capture the images for its Street View service.

But you don’t need to use a VR headset such as Google Cardboard to view the results. You may have noticed 360-degree videos starting to appear on YouTube, complete with navigation tabs that allow you to rotate the image to give a wrap-around perspective.

Numerous apps incorporating 360-degree video already allow you to simply tilt your smartphone or tablet to pan. Facebook is increasingly hosting 360-degree photos and videos, some of which don’t require a special camera but stitch together digital images captured by a regular smartphone.

The Samsung Gear 360 operates pretty much like a regular video camera, recording footage to a micro SD card in its base. But operating a 360-degree camera requires a different approach.

You are no longer behind the camera, but in the shot as well, which can lead to awkward results. I’ve practised holding the camera above my head to take myself out of the shot. But others have invested in, yes, the dreaded selfie stick, for better results.

You also don’t get great results with 360-degree cameras if you move them around while recording. The software that stitches the images together doesn’t handle movement of the camera itself particularly well.

For best results, leave the camera in one position to record everything around it. That’s why the Gear 360 can be controlled via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi from your smartphone, so you can operate it remotely without ruining the shot. That also makes live video streaming of events in 360 degrees a possibility.

Is 360-degree photography a gimmick? Right now, its greatest fans are real estate agents, who are using it to show off houses, and the outdoorsy types who drove the GoPro action-camera craze.

But there’s something special about getting a true full-motion panorama, and our beautiful country affords numerous opportunities for breathtaking results. The cameras still have a way to go – the software is a bit clunky, the image stitching isn’t always perfect and some 360-cameras have limited battery life.

Eventually, they will accompany most of us as built-in or clip-on additions to our smartphones rather than stand-alone cameras.

360-degree cameras to check out

  • Samsung Gear 360 ($499)
  • Ricoh-Pentax Theta S 360 Cam ($580)
  • 360fly Lifestyle 4K 360 Cam ($520)
  • Nikon KeyMission 360 Cam ($685)
  • Garmin Virb 360 ($1130)

This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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