It's not quite virtual reality, but 360 degree photos are the closest we can get to immersive content without wearing goggles or downloading apps. We see them reflected in all settings: exotic destinations, extreme sports and live music, and even family dinners.
The reason that these seemingly high-tech images are becoming so commonplace is simple: 360 degree cameras are becoming more common by the month. And the reason for that is even simpler: the world's two biggest content platforms, Facebook and YouTube, now support the format. Most 360 degree cameras work on the principle of a round device with front and rear wide-angle lenses, producing dual 180 degree images which are stitched together by the increasingly mundane magic of automated software.
The first of these devices were so expensive, they were out of reach of most consumers. Ironically, that was good for the category, as it meant that most of the early images were shot by professionals and therefore of high quality. There is nothing like perception of perfection to get a technology off the ground. Before long, as happens in any expanding gadget category, prices began coming down fast, and the format exploded. Today numerous consumer electronics brands have added 360 degree cameras to their ranges, resulting in a wide range of styles, shapes and claims for market leadership.
This is all rather useful for consumers, who can choose devices that suit their pockets, both cost- and format-wise. Here we focus on three devices that cover a wide price range as well as a range of user requirements. Two of them, the Samsung Gear 360 and LG 360 Cam, were both launched at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a year ago, and remain popular choices. The third? That's a story all on its own:
LyfieEye Spherical 360
The LyfieEye Spherical 360 camera was launched as a fundraising campaign on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform in October last year with a target of $25,000 to build the device. It raised more than $53,000, and the finished product was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January this year. Its standout differentiator may well be its price – a competitive $129 – but more important is the fact that it is small enough to plug into a smartphone. Unusually nowadays, it was launched first for Android devices, reflecting the dominance of the Google mobile operating system across the world, including in South Africa.
Testing it for a few weeks has made it clear that its sheer convenience, portability and direct integration with a smartphone gives this device an edge over almost all other competitors. The highly compact package includes a 7-inch extension called a LyfieLink, which allows it to be positioned a small distance from the smartphone for greater versatility. A USB 2.0-to-Type-C Converter means it can be fitted to the latest devices that use USB-C ports.
It offers both still and video recording, with immediate playback. The playback modes include flat and spherical 360 degrees, as well as virtual reality. Videos can be trimmed during playback. It allows pinch-zooming to zoom in and out of a video, which are recorded at 30 frames per second in 1920 x 1080 high-definition.
Via the smartphone's own connectivity and apps, the images can be uploaded instantly to Facebook 360 and YouTube 360, or shared via instant messaging apps like WhatsApp. It is also compatible with all virtual reality headsets. "Preview, record, and share the entire moment," ran the Kickstarter marketing, and it lives up to this promise. It is available for online purchase from anywhere in the world for $129 at www.lyfie.com.
LG 360 Cam
LG made a big splash at last year's Mobile World Congress with the roll-out of its virtual reality ecosystem, including an LG 360 VR headset that is one of the lightest in its class. The big excitement, though, was sparked by the 360 Cam, which can create content both for the VR headset and for the Facebook and YouTube 360 platforms. The device is compact, elegant and appealing, suggesting an intense focus on cutting edge industrial design. It captures images and videos onto a Micro SD card, helped along by dual 13 megapixel lenses and 2560 x 1280 or 2K video recording.
At that resolution, it is one of the best value for money 360 degree cameras available, but both the app and the resultant quality clearly need work. One hour battery life is not bad for a device that can easily be recharged with a portable battery back, but that can become a problem out in the field. It retails in South Africa for R3,500 upward, meaning it won't fit all budgets, but is great as a bundled device with smartphone contracts. In the next few weeks, LG is expected to up the ante on its VR family, so look out for both new models and enhancements to this one.
Samsung Gear 360
The market leader in South Africa despite a steep price, the Samsung Gear 360 is the evidence that appetite for the format is unquenchable. At a retail price of R6,999, it is a high-end purchase, aimed at the same market that has made the high end Samsung S6 and S7 phone ranges among the most popular flagship handsets in this country. In fact, it is only compatible with these phones, along with the Note 5.
The shape of the device, a spherical ball on a tripod, gives it the appearance of a robot, but also speaks to the versatility of the dual fish-eye lenses. The lenses have 15 MP sensors, and support 30 MP stills. They record video at 30 frames per second in 3840 x 1920 – or 4K – resolution, making it the Rolls Royce of 360 video shooting. The user can also choose to use a single lens to shoot in 180 degrees. The best of both worlds, one could say.