Saturday, July 16, 2016

OPINION: 360-degree cameras have become mainstream

In the past couple of weeks, something's changed with 360 cameras.  It seems that they've reached a point where regular people are aware of them and have accepted them.

When I was first using the Ricoh Theta a year ago, no one I met had heard of them.  There were curious people who thought the Theta was some kind of phone or a sleek new camera.  Some of them approached me to ask about it, and I had to explain to them what a 360-degree camera is, then proceed to show them what it looks like on my phone.  (A few didn't understand completely and thought their phone's panoramic photo mode could do the same thing.)  After I explained and showed it to them, almost all people I met thought it was cool, and they were surprised that there was such a camera.

On one hand, I was encouraged by the fact that almost all of them were interested in it.  On the other hand, I was a little bit discouraged that despite the popularity of the Theta (it was the top selling digital camera for Christmas on Amazon), almost no one knew about it.  But I thought there was a silver lining - the Theta managed to sell very well, even with very little awareness of it.  How much better would it do, if more people actually knew about it.

Fast forward to Summer 2016.  Things have definitely changed...
... As I was doing video tests for the Gear 360 at the beach, I saw a passing skateboarder yell out, "360 camera!  Cool!"
... When I post a 360 photo to Facebook these days, I no longer get asked, "What manner of sorcery is this?"  People just give likes and post comments without even a question about what kind of camera it was.
... I met a friend who was visiting from out of town.  When I pulled out the Theta, he knew that it was a 360 camera.
... There are articles in the mainstream non-technical press about 360 cameras.
... We were having dinner at the restaurant yesterday and I took a picture with the Theta.  As the attendant brought our food, he asked, "Is that a 360 camera?  Cool!"  He didn't seem to be a gadget freak like me either.

So I don't have scientific evidence - only anecdotal evidence that the tide has turned and 360 cameras have become mainstream.

If I had to guess, I think there are several things that have happened that built awareness and acceptance of 360 cameras.
- First, the interest in VR has continued to grow, with no sign of abatement.  As people become interested in VR, they start to consider how they could make their own content for their VR headsets.
- Second, there are now several 360 cameras, and more importantly, affordable ones, such as the $199 LG 360 Cam.
- Third, 360 photos and videos are being supported by a greater number of devices and platforms.  Most critically, Facebook started supporting 360 photos last month.  Although Facebook had supported 360 videos for some time, not all people have the equipment to capture or process them easily.  360 photos, on the other hand, are much easier to handle.

Of course, 360 cameras are still a rare sight.  But I believe that with the introduction of small, inexpensive 360 cameras such as the Insta360 Nano ($199; previewed here) and the Nico 360 ($199), they'll continue to grow in popularity.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Nico360: a tiny, waterproof 360-degree camera with live streaming!

Would you be interested in an extremely compact, fully spherical, waterproof 360-degree camera with live streaming?  Did I mention it's only $199?  Check out the Nico 360!

The Nico360 is claimed to be the smallest fully spherical 360-degree camera.  It competes for that title with 360 cameras such as the Luna and Nikon Keymission, but it's definitely one of the smallest, if not the smallest I've seen.

It has very interesting key features:
  • two 16mp sensors
  • photo resolution: up to 25 megapixels
  • video resolution: 2560 x 1440 @ 30fps
  • electronic image stabilization
  • live streaming without a PC
  • Adobe RAW/DNG format available
  • Bluetooth and 5G wi-fi
  • waterproof
  • compatible with iOS and Android
  • 32GB internal storage
  • MSRP: $199
This is frankly, quite incredible.  Other than the ho-hum 2k video resolution and internal non-expandable storage, this seems very close to ideal 360 camera for consumers.  The raw capability is quite impressive - it's one of the very few 360 cameras with such capability.  (Raw format allows you to adjust the color temperature in postprocessing without loss of image quality; Raw format also generally has better dynamic range, exposure latitude and sometimes sharpness.)

The waterproof claim is a little puzzling because they also show a waterproof housing.  But then again, they also show the camera under a faucet, without the housing.  I am supposing the waterproof housing is for greater depths.

Right now they are doing an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, with delivery promised by October 2016.  The first two hundred orders are $99 plus shipping.  Again, that sounds almost too good to be true!   This will definitely be on my radar...  Caveat: Please note that crowdfunding doesn't guarantee that you'll get your product or it can be delayed by several years.  Sometimes you won't get it at all.

Good news! Insta360 Nano shipping earlier than expected!

The Insta360 Nano, a removable 360-degree camera for the iPhone, is shipping much earlier than expected.  When preorders began on June 28, the ship date was reported to be July 30, 2016.  Now the Amazon preorder page shows a shipping date of July 18, 2016, almost 2 weeks ahead of schedule!  (Nikon can perhaps take a lesson here... ;-) ).

I've been looking forward to this camera since it was announced back in March.  I think it is a good camera for casual use, and samples look pretty good.  I can't wait to receive mine!  I will be posting first impressions when I get it, to be followed up by a more detailed review after further testing.  In the meantime, here is what we know so far.

Review: Monoshot, a monopod with removable tripod legs

(image by Monoshot)
This is a review of the Monoshot, a monopod with removable tripod legs.  This review is focused on its usage with a 360-degree camera.

Samsung Gear 360's audio is so good, YouTube might flag you for copyright violation

One of the interesting things about the Samsung Gear 360 (reviewed here) is its excellent audio.  It can capture even loud sounds without buzzing, it seems to be able to reduce wind noise, and best of all, the sound is 360-degrees when viewed on the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here).

Yesterday I found out just how good the Samsung Gear 360's audio is.  My friend David Grass recorded a wedding reception with his Samsung Gear 360, including the dance, then he uploaded the video.  To his surprise, his video was flagged for a copyright violation!  Apparently, YouTube employs automatic algorithms for detecting when copyrighted video or audio is put in a video file.  In this case, YouTube's computers thought that he used a copyrighted soundtrack, when in fact he was just recording the ambient audio from the dance!  (Fortunately when he uploaded a shorter version of the video, he wasn't flagged anymore - probably as fair use).

Anyway, here is a short video I took recently at a live summer concert at the local park, so you can listen for yourself (note: it was also breezy - you can hear a little bit of the wind).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Mobile VR will change home computing

Many people have both a smartphone and a laptop.  We use smartphones for a lot of things but when it comes to doing work - with lots of typing and editing - a smartphone is hard to use, so we still need to use a laptop.  Nonetheless, people want to have only one device.  In an attempt to fill that need, we've had tablets, phablets, and laptops that convert to tablets.  But none of those are perfect solutions.

An innovative solution to this problem is to use the phone as a laptop.  With all your data in one device, you won't have to worry about syncing.  Similar solutions have been attempted in the past using laptops with built-in docks for phones.  However, they were too expensive and they failed commercially.

Now the idea is becoming practical again, thanks to the increasing processing power of smartphones.  Motivated by consumers' desire to use their smartphones for ever-expanding applications, smartphone manufacturers have been creating more powerful smartphones.  Most recently, the need for a higher quality mobile VR experience has led Google and its partners to design powerful smartphones ready for Google's new Daydream mobile VR platform.

The Superbook (photo by Andromium Inc.)

These new smartphones have more than enough power to function as a laptop for typical applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, surfing the web, or even some games.  And indeed, you can turn your phone into a laptop with Superbook, a new crowdfunding project.  Unlike previous attempts to use the phone as a laptop, the Superbook leverages the power of new smartphones by being powered entirely by your smartphone.  The Superbook is essentially a laptop with no processor or storage drive of its own.  Instead, for those, it uses your smartphone.

To use the Superbook, you just install the Andromium app on your phone, plug the phone into the laptop then you're ready to go.

This solution has several advantages:
1.  Because it has no processor or storage, the Superbook costs much less than previous laptops for smartphones.  In the Kickstarter campaign which starts July 21, the Superbook will be available for just $99.
2.  You don't have to worry about syncing data.
3.  You don't have to worry about upgrading your laptop - it will be upgraded as you upgrade your phone.  This also reduces electronic waste.
4.  The Superbook has its own battery, which can charge your phone.

I don't know if Superbook will fail or succeed commercially, but in any case, I think this will become the dominant computing model, at least for the home.  You would just buy a high-end smartphone, a laptop "shell" like the Superbook, and your smartphone will function both as a phone and as a laptop.  You won't need to buy a separate laptop.  Even though a more powerful smartphone would be more expensive, it would also function as your home computer, which would make it more cost-effective.  As this becomes the dominant model, smartphones will become even more powerful, which will allow even better VR and AR experiences.

As for desktops, I think they will remain, but I think they would be primarily for commercial/industrial uses, games, video editing, or other processor-intensive applications.

What do you think?  Would you be willing to get a high-end smartphone that will function both as a phone and as your home computer?

Ricoh Theta has new dedicated remote shutter

Ricoh announced a new dedicated remote control for the Ricoh Theta. The model number is CA-3. 
It appears to be a wired remote that connects to the USB port of the Theta. I would have preferred a wireless one, to keep the cable out of view (plus one less thing to carry) and to be able to use it with the TH-1 hardcase. I suppose I will still have to use the Theta mobile app to trigger wirelessly (or use the self-timer). 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Daydream-ready ZTE Axon 7 phone available for order in the US

As reported by Mike Cane, the Daydream-ready ZTE Axon 7 is now available for preorder in the US from Amazon, Best Buy and B&H PhotoCheck out Mike's post here.  The price is $399.99 (64GB; unlocked), and will ship around July 27.

The specs are pretty impressive:
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
  • 20mp rear camera with optical image stabilization and wide aperture f/1.8 lens
  • 8mp front camera
  • 4k video capture
  • 5.5-inch AMOLED display with QHD resolution (2560x1440; 538ppi)
  • Gorilla Glass 4
  • memory expandable with micro SD
  • 3250 mAh battery
  • Size: 5.97" x 2.95" x 0.31".  Weight: 6.17 oz.
It also features a fingerprint reader below the rear camera, which allows you to unlock the phone with one hand.

The specs appear very similar to those of the Samsung Galaxy S7 ($799), and even the same processor in US versions of the S7. 

Some questions arise:
1.  What about ZTE's Daydream VR headset?  How much is it?  Will headsets be cross-compatible, or only compatible with a manufacturer's own phone?
2.  If the Axon 7 is Daydream-ready and the specs are almost the same as those of the S7, does that mean the S7 is also Daydream-ready (notwithstanding Google's statement that existing smartphones are unlikely to be 'retroactively' Daydream-ready)?
3.  Similarly, if the S7 seems to be Daydream-ready, it seems even more likely that the S8 will be Daydream-ready, particularly because Samsung is a Daydream partner.
4.  Does this increase the likelihood that the next Samsung Gear VR will be modified to be compatible with Daydream?
5.  What about Apple?  Will they introduce their VR system together with the iPhone 7 (expected to be announced in September 2016)?

I think the ZTE Axon 7 features are attractive and the price is reasonable, but I'm going to wait for the Samsung Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 announcements.

TECHNIQUE: Fast and Easy Way to Add Logo to 360 Photos and Videos

There are a few tutorials for adding logos to the nadir of a 360-degree photo or video.  This method allows you to add a logo easily and quickly to 360-degree photos and videos.

1. In your favorite image editor, create a canvas with a 2:1 ratio, preferably in the resolution of the equirectangular photos or videos you'll be editing, e.g. 3840 x 1920.  If you're using Photoshop, choose Transparent as the background.  Otherwise, right-click the background color to make it transparent.

2. Put your logo in the middle of the canvas (centered horizontally and vertically).  Save as PNG (to preserve transparency).

3. Transform the image so that the logo is on the bottom of the equirectangular image.  There are several ways to do this.

a.  An easy way is with the Flexify 2 plugin for Photoshop.  If you have it, then just select a Latitude of -90.

b. Another way is with the free panoramic editor Hugin.  Import your PNG logo into Hugin.  When prompted for camera and lens data, select Equirectangular with HFOV of 360.
Select the Fast Preview icon (near the top, 4th icon from the right).
On the next screen, select the Move/Drag tab.  In Pitch, enter -90 to have the logo at the bottom.

Close the Fast Panorama preview to go back to the main screen.  Click the Stitcher tab.  Save the file and choose PNG as your [export] format.  Click Stitch.

Whether you use Flexify, Hugin or some other program, you'll have a new PNG file that's been transformed for use with equirectangular images.

4.  To use the logo, just paste the PNG file over your photo or video, or use it as an overlay.  In the example below, I added the logo as a layer to a video (here, I used Magix Movie Edit Pro Plus).

And here is a sample where I used it for a photo:

Here is the result:

The next time you want to add a logo, you just need to use Step 4, unless you want to resize the logo or move it to another part of the target photo.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Teche T2 is a 96-megapixel 360-degree camera with 6k video

Teche T2 is a high-resolution 360-degree camera with a claimed 96-megapixel resolution, which appears to based on the fact that it has six sensors, each 16mp and 1/2.3-inch in size.  The Teche is also claimed to have 6k video resolution, although the frame rate is not disclosed.

From the lens configuration, the Teche appears to produce cylindrical panoramas instead of spherical panoramas.

The price is 15,800 yuan which is around $2,364 at current exchange rates.

Here is the official site.  Thank you very much again to reader Andre Pariente for finding this info!

Samsung Gear 360 now available in the US from Samsung *online*; $350 price confirmed

The Samsung Gear 360 (reviewed here) is now available online in the US, directly from Samsung.  It's not yet full retail availability, but it's available to virtually anyone - no need to attend a conference

There is a catch though:  to order the Samsung Gear 360, you need to register for the Samsung Creators Awards contest (details here) and create an account with Samsung.  You will receive an email that lets you order the Gear 360 before it becomes available to the general public.  After you receive your email, you need to go to the website .   You then enter the 'unique code' that was sent to you in the email.  Mine was B6230373  - I don't know if that works only once.  Feel free to use mine if you can!

The price is $349.99, with a limit of 2 per person.

Latest Vuze sample video has perfect stitching, good detail, amazing audio

Vuze (previewed here), the first fully spherical 360 3D camera for consumers, just uploaded another sample on Facebook.

I was very impressed with the stitching, which looked perfectly seamless.  I don't know if the stitching in this case was automatic, or was customized (and if it was customized, I don't know if the included software would allow customization).  I do know that one of their recent videos, of an Austrian concert, had excellent stitching as well.

Separate from the stitching, the image quality was also quite good.  I watched the video on the phone and also on the Gear VR.  There was excellent level of detail for the singer.  The piano and the other instruments had less detail because they were farther, but there was still a reasonable level of detail.

The color for this sample video was much better and more realistic than the color in the Austrian concert video.

There was some glare, which I expected due to the very strong light sources.  (Note that they also used smoke machines for volumetric lighting effects.)  Hopefully there is not too much glare in normal shots.

The audio was amazing, but I don't know if they used an external microphone, or the camera's built-in microphone. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say they probably used an external microphone, just because I find it hard to believe a built-in camera could capture audio with such impressive quality.

Check out the post on Facebook.  Also go Behind the Scenes of this shoot.

You can now upload 360 photos to Facebook via the mobile app

Facebook recently began supporting 360-degree photos. However, the upload process was rather quirky and required dragging and dropping on the desktop.

Fortunately, with the Facebook update on July 7, you can now upload 360-degree photos via the mobile app. Just create a new post and tap on the photo icon, and choose a 360-degree photo. When you upload the photo, it will automatically be recognized as a 360-degree photo.

I've tested it successfully on Facebook for iOS (version 59.0) with the iPhone 6, and Facebook for Android (version with a Samsung S6 running on Android 6.0.1.

Amazon Prime Day 2016: VR / 360 deals

Amazon's Prime Day is here!  Prime members get access to amazing deals on hundreds of products.  Here are some that I think would appeal to those interested in VR / 360:

1.  SanDisk Ultra MicroSD 64GB ($14.99; regularly around $20)
Many 360-degree cameras use Micro SD cards, and Amazon has several Micro SD cards on sale for Prime Day.  One of them is the SanDisk Ultra 64GB, which I've used in my Samsung Gear 360.

2.  Sandisk SSD Plus 480GB ($93; regularly $149)
A solid-state drive (SSD) can boost the performance of your PC considerably, making it faster to edit 360 videos.  There are several on sale for Prime Day.  Most of them seem to use triple-layer cell (TLC) commonly found in budget SSD drives.  However, the SanDisk SSD Plus is an SSD with multi-layer cell (MLC), which is generally faster and longer-lasting than TLC.

3. ViewMaster VR Starter Pack ($12.59; regularly around $16.70)
This is an updated version of the classic Viewmaster toy.  With Google Cardboard technology, the new ViewMaster VR shows 360-degree photos.  The ViewMaster VR can also be used as a Google Cardboard viewer.

4. Samsung Gear VR with Level U Pro ($129.99; regularly $151.07)
This is a bundle that includes the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here) and the Samsung Level U Pro headphones with microphones.  TBH the Gear VR is easily available on eBay for much less, so this would only make sense if you wanted the Level U Pro headphones.

5.  3DR Solo Quadcopter with gimbal ($599; regularly around $800)
The 3DR Solo can be paired with the Kodak SP360 4k Aerial Pack to provide aerial 360 videos without the drone in the shot!  Note: this order will ship in 1 to 2 months.

If you spot any other good Prime Day deals for VR / 360, please share it in the comments!

Monday, July 11, 2016

4k VR / 360 live streaming with Eyesir camera

Chinese companies have been following the VR trend and producing 360-degree cameras of their own.  One of the new VR/360 products from China is the Eyesir, a camera that is claimed to have 4k live streaming capability:

Eyesir is a fully spherical 360 camera with 4k 30fps video, with 4k live streaming capabilities.  The Eyesir stitches in realtime, unlike some cameras such as the Samsung Gear 360, which must be stitched during postprocessing.

It has a claimed 180 minutes battery duration, although it is not clear whether overheating would limit the recording time.

Its manufacturer Perfant claims that the Eyesir can do 4k VR live streaming "without connection to PC."

Here is a link to the official page.

A huge thanks to reader Andre Pariente for spotting this and bringing it to my attention!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Video comparison: GoPro Ball rig, Kodak SP360 4k dual pro, Samsung Gear360, Ricoh Theta S

Here's a very good comparison of the video performance between four 360 degree cameras:
- a GoPro Ball rig with 7 GoPro cameras
- Kodak SP360 4k dual pro pack
- Samsung Gear 360
- Ricoh Theta S

The comparison is by Foundry45, a business-oriented VR production company that produces VR videos for sales, marketing and recruitment. 

Here are some of their conclusions:
- The GoPro has the best image quality but takes a lot of time and effort to process. 
- The Samsung Gear 360 image quality indoors is not as good as the Kodak SP360 4k dual pro, but it is easy to process because the image is automatically stitched.
- They recommend the SP360 4k as the best compromise between image quality and processing time.
- The Theta S has the best stitching because of the very small distance between the lenses.  The photo quality is great, and the video quality might be "good enough" for YouTube Facebook but not for viewing on a headset.
- The GoPro and SP360 4k cameras are not perfectly synced. If there is a lot of motion, the stitch lines will be very visible, which will take a lot of post processing to hide.
- The GoPro, the SP360 4k and Gear 360 can overheat. The Theta is the most reliable and least likely to overheat.