VR News’ Great Camera Question

If there’s one major question for journalists working in the virtual reality space, it involves the search for the perfect camera.  If there’s one major takeaway from the recently-concluded NAB conference in Las Vegas, it’s that there’s no clear answer. 


If you’re new to the space, the basic choice comes down to image quality versus speed.  (And price, of course.)  You can get best-in-class pictures for your story, but to do it you’ll need about thirty-two man hours of post-production time (stitching) just to get it ready for editing.  This is based on about forty minutes of video shot. 


What takes so long?  A top-end VR rig has ten or more cameras attached to it.  (The latest Google Jump camera has seventeen!) That means every “shot” is actually comprised of multiple files off of multiple storage cards within the respective cameras, which are then loaded into a computer.  Each of those shots must then be woven together with software, carefully minimizing or eliminating the “stitch lines” that show up where the shots meet in the final product.  It’s part art, part science, and even with some of the best, it’s a time-consuming process. 


This approach is obviously not conducive to shooting breaking news, or even a predictable event happening at a scheduled time.  You won’t have the story published until a couple of days later at best—and that’s with a team of expert stitchers on hand. 


At the opposite end of the spectrum are consumer cameras you can pick up at your local Best Buy or Sam’s Club.  Samsung’s Gear 360 is a good example.  It houses two cameras with fisheye lenses.  Stitching is required, but it’s done with a drag-and-drop software that you can walk away from.  More notably, it only takes a couple of hours to turn around that same chunk of video.  The limitations are found in the image quality.  The camera claims to shoot 4K, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a viewer who agrees. 


The good news with consumer cameras is that you can operate like a daily journalist.  Further, if you’re distributing on an established platform like Facebook or YouTube (currently the biggest hosts of VR content), many of your viewers are going to watch the material via mobile phone, and the lack of quality won’t be nearly as noticeable. 


The question most of our clients ask about this situation is the obvious one:  when will quality and speed arrive in the same device? 


If you believe the flyers and demos on the convention hall floor, the answer is either soon or now.  Kodak, Orah, Insta360 Pro, Vuze, and GoPro are among a list of manufacturers all laying claim to new cameras that will increase image quality, greatly reduce or even eliminate the stitching process—even livestream 360 video.  Prices for these cameras range from about $600 to $4000 or so for the sort of device a journalist would throw in a backpack and use in the field. 


The trouble is, convention exhibitors are notorious for showing you something in person that they can’t actually sell you.  I’m not taking a shot at the companies. This is just the challenge they’re facing in a business where technology is evolving at lightning speed.


In my time at MANDT VR we had seen every one of the aforementioned cameras with the exception of GoPro’s latest, called the Fusion.  Only one had actually made it into the building—the Vuze—and, while an improvement, it’s probably, of that group, the farthest away from achieving everything we’re looking for in a solution.  As for the Fusion, a significant number of people at the GoPro booth in Vegas (I kid you not) hadn’t even heard of it yet!  They can’t tell you the specs or the price but claim it’ll be on shelves by year’s end.  Similarly, Orah took pre-orders last August, 2016 for the 4i camera and just started talking about actually shipping them in March of this year. (MANDT VR pulled its pre-order after close to six months of waiting.  Now they’re backed up in production.) 


If NAB offered reasons for optimism, it came from good old-fashioned competition and the prime real estate commanded by VR/360 equipment on the convention floor.  A massive section of the North Hall was filled with big-time displays built with big-time budgets, everyone vying to become the industry standard in an exploding industry. 


The unusual thing about the current camera challenge is that there’s no buying your way out of it.  You could walk into B&H with a million bucks, and they still couldn’t sell you a camera to cover all of your needs right now.  Every company in the space is keenly aware of this, and all are racing to solve the problem and achieve market dominance.  With this as motivation, a lasting solution will likely emerge before you start raking leaves this fall.