Every year, there seems to be certain buzzwords in the tech industry. They are either hyped up technology that fade into obscurity or hyped up technology that actually evolve into something useful.
For the past 18 months or so, the buzzword has been "Virtual Reality" (VR). From this has spawned a new generation of 360 photography and videography.
360 photography as a concept is not a new thing. I remember having an old Olympus FE-120 camera in 2005 which had a panorama feature. I also remember being shown an app on an old iPhone that was able to take spherical 360 photos by moving the phone around. However, since the advent of VR headsets, several devices capable of taking 360 photographs using multiple cameras have hit the market.
One such device is the Samsung Gear 360. When I bought the Samsung Galaxy S7, I received a free Samsung Gear VR headset and despite my best efforts, could not resist the allure of the 360 camera.
I'm not a massive fan of 'unboxing' videos. But it is worth seeing what is inside.
As you can see, the box it comes in is cylindrical, probably to emphasise the 360 part. On the right, you can see a nice leather box that Samsung gave for free which can safely store the camera when not being used.
As well as the camera, you get some other bits and bobs neatly tucked away:
- A soft case and a cloth, it is nice that this is included I think
- A wrist strap
- A micro USB cable - can be used to connect to the computer or for charging, note that there is no charger actually included
- The battery - I like that this is replaceable like on most regular cameras
- A license key to ActionDirect, which is a PC/Mac editing software for 360 videos. I guess it can only be used once.
- It also comes attached to a mini tripod that doubles as something to hold the camera up with in your hand (like holding an ice cream), but it is removable and you can put the camera onto any standard tripod.
Filming 360 Videos
To use the camera on its own is very simple. You can use the buttons to select the mode (which is shown a tiny LED display) and then just press the button to start recording or take a photo. It is similar to a GoPro in that you do not have a preview on the camera itself. But since it is 360, you can't really miss what you are trying to shoot as it will always be in shot!
But there is an app that goes with it. This app is only compatible on the latest Samsung phones going back to the S6. This is my one worry about buying into the Samsung eco-system, one day my phone will be 'old' and I am not sure if this app will always be compatible or indeed if the device compatible with the future phones. The device shoots in a standard format, so there is no worry on that side of things.
On the app, you can see a live preview of the camera. It connects via Bluetooth. You can also view videos and photos that are stored on the camera (since the camera stores everything on its own microSD card - which you have to buy yourself). You can also start and stop recording/take a photo using the app rather than the button on the camera.
The only problem is that if you want to share or do anything with the video, it first has to download onto the phone via Bluetooth, which isn't the quickest transfer method. It also defaults by putting on your phone memory rather than on the external memory. I will probably use the cable to do transfers, but this is not always possible if you want to share whilst 'on the go'.
I did make a video review that is on YouTube that you can watch below (use the arrows on the player to turn around to find me!):
I am not convinced with the quality of the video on YouTube, it looks a lot better on my phone or computer. It may be because the Gear 360 is not on their list of supported devices (although the format should be independent of the device).
I also took this photo (my first 360 selfie!):
When uploaded to Facebook, it becomes processed as a "360 photo" which means you can scroll around the photo rather than just see the flattened image like above.
There is also a time lapse function which I did a quick test but for some reason, YouTube was unable to process it, which is disappointing as it appears to be the exact same format as the standard 360 video which works!
Processing 360 Videos
To edit 360 videos, options are currently limited. They do give you a key for ActionDirector which is made by CyberLink and allows you to do basic trimming and joining of 360 clips and render the result as a 360 video (it is how I did the review above).
Whilst it is good that such a thing exists to let me perform this task, it is so slow! Every clip that gets imported has to get processed. This changes it from a flat image to a 360 one. But this processing is so slow even for short clips. I am not sure why it has to be done if I just want to trim clips together. Why doesn't the phone need to spend all this time processing and can play them straightaway?
One thing I took away from this, is that this is not the sort of device that you make long clips that you edit together later. It is for short clips that are shareable individually.
Viewing on the Headset
Let's face it, the best way to view 360 material is on the headset. As I mentioned earlier, I have the Samsung Gear VR, which is powered by the Oculus app on the phone.
The easiest way to view, is whilst you are looking a video or photo, to press the "View in VR" button. This prompts you to plug into your headset and away you go.
But, I did not see this at first. I thought - and still think you should be able to - that you could just go onto the VR headset, select the movie player or photo gallery and view your picture and video in all their 360 glory.
Sadly, it doesn't work like that. To view photos via Oculus, you have to place them in a folder called "360Photos" inside another Oculus folder. To see video, you have to rename the file with "_360" at the end of the file name, even then, although it loaded as 360, for some reason it would not play. I think these are both tedious and unnecessary. All my files are visible, can't it be clever enough to detect the format and know that it is 360. I don't tell Facebook or YouTube that it is 360 - they automatically detect!
If I wanted to show someone, it would be easier for me to load the gallery on the headset and then give it to them, so it is disappointing that this process is not so seamless and I really think it should be since they are all Samsung products.
All that said, you can still view using the "View in VR" button and it looks amazing when you do.
For 360 videos and photos to become a 'thing' beyond a trend, the following needs to happen:
1) Hardware needs to become cheaper and more accessible
Right now, there are only a handful of 360 cameras and they are all quite expensive. The other problem, is that they require other devices to get associated apps to actually see the photos that you have taken - it is OK if you already have a compatible device, but what if you do not?
I think they need to go the way of digital cameras and have an onboard screen so that another device is optional. I also think that they need to be able to take regular photos as well as 360 ones. The Gear 360 can be changed to 1 lens, but this still takes a 180 photo; I am talking about regular photos - even a flat panoramic picture would be awesome. It would be nice to see the big compact camera makers: Sony, Olympus, Nikon etc at least build their own 360 cameras.
One thing that caused the whole 3D craze to fail, was that it never made it onto consumer products.
2) Greater compatibility both online and offline
Currently, Facebook and Youtube are leading the way with support for 360 photos and videos. Beyond that, there isn't much more out there. I would love to be able to share my photos in more places, I would like to see the likes of Twitter and Periscope (live stream 360?) to take it on.
I have looked around and there already several projects that can be used by anyone on their website, but these are all very much experimental. I would like a simple plugin that let me display the photo I took above as a scrollable 360 view. In an ideal world, I would love to see native browser support, but I don't think that will happen any time soon.
Offline, I would like to be able to view the videos and photos as they were intended on my desktop. Right now, they are 'flattened', and I can only see them as 360 on Facebook, Youtube, on my phone (with a special app) and on the headset. Players like VLC or Quicktime could add the support as well as Windows 10 own Video app.
Right now, I am very limited in how I can show off my photos and videos to my friends and family.
I would also like to be able to do basic editing, trimming clips together. Right now, the only software I know of is Samsung's own one which they give you with the camera, but I would like support in programs like Sony Vegas and Final Cut, so that we do not have to depend on proprietary software.
I think that all of the softwares need to find a common way of handling this format as I think there are some inconsistencies (for example, why does YouTube not like time lapse but can handle normal video when it is the same format? YouTube even only lists 2 devices that it claims are the only ones able to upload 360 clips, one of which is not this one) Why does ActionDirector need ages to process a simple clip just to watch it in a 360 viewer?
3) Samsung Needs a More Seamless Process
Although pairing the camera with the phone is seamless (there is even NFC support that just requires you to touch!) and setting up the phone with the VR is seamless (just plug in and away you go), the two processes together still feel disconnected. Yes there is a "View in VR" button in the gallery after you download another app, but I should be able to be already in the headset and just select the video or photo that I want to view no matter where it is stored or what it is called.
That is all I have to say for now. Overall, I think it is a great device and I look forward to taking it to places and on holiday. Thanks for reading!