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360 Cameras Are Cool, But They Should Be Better. Here's How. – Forbes





Stari Most bridge in Mostar.
Chances are, you don’t own a 360 camera. Maybe you’ve seen one though: skinny, oddly-shaped devices with lenses on both sides. Their most basic function is to record or photograph a full “sphere” around the camera. Everything, essentially, except the camera itself.
As cool as those 360-degree images are, the images/videos they create can be manipulated into doing some even cooler stuff. Judging from my own Instagram, Tiny Planets are well loved. Recording an entire scene also lets you do cool things like selecting out just a portion of the image to create a traditional square 1080p video, and then pan around and zoom like you were there with a professional camera rig.
The problem is, most of the cameras are terrible. But they don’t have to be. Here’s where they need to improve.
Software
This is easily the most important, and area these cameras need the most improvement. I’d estimate that roughly half the 360 cameras have apps that are barely usable, either outright crashing, not connecting, or having mediocre functionality. This isn’t just no-name brands that have this issue either. Nikon and GoPro are some of the worst offenders.
At a bare minimum, since these cameras really require an app to work, the app should be fast to load, fast to connect, and let you adjust the standard camera settings like exposure, shutter speed, and so on. At a minimum. In reality, they should do a lot more, like letting you create Tiny Planet photos/videos within the app, edit/trip video clips, maybe even do a modicum of photo editing. Would you believe some of these apps won’t even let you download the content you create to use elsewhere on your phone? Instead, it keeps it captive within its app, only letting you upload directly to a limited selection of social media outlets (i.e. just Facebook). Yeah, if that sounds ridiculous, it is.
The excellent Rylo app
Now, certain companies are well ahead of the curve. Rylo, for one, is a fantastic camera with a slick app. Insta360 is another. These two companies are easily the benchmark for how a 360 camera app should behave.
If all the companies had cool editing features like Rylo and Insta360, that’d be awesome. I’d be satisfied if they worked, and did things like stitch videos in the app.
Side and front views of the Insta360 Air connected to a phone.
What’s more, the desktop software is equally hit-or-miss (usually miss). Whatever functions a mobile app has, the desktop version (both PC and Mac please) should have as well. That almost never happens, which is incredibly non-user-friendly.
Better lenses/sensors
This is getting better, but slowly. It seems for the first few generations of 360 cameras, companies were content putting in sub-par image sensors. I suppose they assumed that the novelty of a photosphere would outweigh the mediocre quality. Sadly, that’s not the case. In a way, the sensors in a 360 camera need to be better than a traditional camera of the same price. Where it’s fairly easy to make a regular photo look pretty decent for social media, regardless of the camera, a 360 image is already at a disadvantage because you’re zooming in on a portion of the image when you’re looking at it later, and you’re looking at the entire image. You can resize and crop a traditional image, add a lot of noise reduction, and the final result, on Instagram for example, can look quite good. You can’t resize, crop, or add too much noise reduction to a 360 image, otherwise it will look even more blurry than it already does.
This goes double for video. 4K video is more than enough for your mobile device and TV at home. With a 360 video, it’s a barely-tolerable minimum. Again, this is because to view a 360 video, you’re essentially “zooming in” on a portion of the image, and then looking around. So the total pixels you’re seeing at any one moment is a fraction of the total frame.
The GoPro Fusion
Again, there are a few companies that are doing well on this front. GoPro, despite their software issues, have fantastic hardware. Their photos and videos are spectacular and rival many regular action cams. Ricoh is another, with low noise and high dynamic range. A few other companies are using top tier sensors, but their processing doesn’t quite do the sensors justice. That’s not too difficult to fix, at least they’re starting with solid hardware.
Stabilization
There is no comparison between stabilized video and non. Bumpy, shaky, unstabilized video is difficult to watch at best, and impossible at worst. Viewed on a screen is bad enough. Viewed on a VR headset can be nauseating.
The Rylo 360 camera
Fortunately, many cameras are doing a pretty solid job of this. From the high end of the range like the GoPro Fusion and the Garmin VIRB360, to the upper mid-range of the Ricoh Theta V and Rylo, to the lower mid-range like the Insta360 One, stabilized video is available on a wide variety of cameras (and many more I didn’t mention). This has become a sort of must-have in the 360 camera world, much as 4K video was last year. Stabilized videos are just vastly superior to their unstabilized cousins, and no one should consider a camera that doesn’t have it in 2018. And by extension, no company should release a camera that doesn’t have a stabilization feature, ideally within the mobile app.
Stitching
You’d think I’d have put this much closer to the top, but in reality, this is pretty good… in most cases. Since a seamless stitch of the two hemisphere images is vital to create a compelling and realistic photosphere, you’d hope that this is a place where companies spend the most development time. Largely, I’m sure they do. The problem is, some 360 cameras start at a disadvantage. The farther apart the lenses are, physically, the harder it is to stitch them together well. Something like the Ricoh Theta V, for example, will have an easier time stitching its images together because of how close the sensors are (essentially back to back). Something like the Nikon KeyMission 360 will have a far harder time, since its sensors are over an inch apart.
Ricoh Theta V, waterproof case, and external microphone
Companies have figured this out. The GoPro Fusion, Insta360 One, Xiaomi Mi Sphere, and others, all have a thin design, front to back, so their sensors can be as close together as possible.
So hopefully this trend continues, letting the software gurus work their magic on hemispheres that already line up pretty well.
The Future
While 360 images/videos themselves are and always will be a niche, the other uses of 360 cameras will likely grow over time. Being able to smoothly pan across a stabilized image, without an expensive, bulky gimbal, has value for anyone who cares about the quality of their shared videos.
The key will be a next generation of hardware that doesn’t disappoint a mainstream user, which far too many of these cameras have in the past.

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