I’ve spent the last 3 months completely immersed in the latest 360 camera technologies while using a plethora of 360 cameras. I have used some of the ‘first-gen’ cameras like the Ricoh Theta, Samsung Gear 360 (2016) and the LG 360 camera. None of those cameras particularly satisfied my needs as a photography enthusiast and someone who appreciates good video (I don’t think I’m a very good videographer though). Obviously I haven’t tried every camera on the market but I have gone out of my way to try as many as I possibly can and there were a few cameras that came out recently that have really caught my attention.
The great thing about 360 cameras for someone like me is that I’m no longer excluded from my photos and videos. Additionally, I hear countless feedback from my friends that they feel like they’re actually there. This effect has been produced time and time again with almost every single 360 camera I test as I upload nearly every single camera’s photos and videos to Facebook and YouTube for my friends to see and provide feedback on. It also serves a second purpose in that it allows me to see how aggressive Facebook and YouTube’s compression algorithms are on the video files and I hate to say it but both companies have a VERY long way to go. From my experience, YouTube has much better quality than Facebook and I’m frankly embarrassed to do live streams in 360 on Facebook with the image quality in its current state.
One of the things that I had previously thought about 360 cameras was that because of the nature of many of these cameras highly curved lenses, image quality simply had to suffer and that higher resolution sensors were the solution. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Samsung’s new Gear 360 (2017) features two 8 Megapixel sensors and displays 4K video. The images on the new Gear 360 are about half the resolution of the original Gear 360 camera but they don’t look worse in any way, in fact they often look better thanks to improved stitching due to the sensors being closer together.
Also, I thought that 4K video wasn’t enough to make good quality 360 video, this was because of the countless poor quality 360 videos that I saw in 4K. However, thanks to Samsung’s new Gear 360, the 4K footage not only looks fantastic on-device but it also looks quite good on YouTube. However, Samsung’s extremely good Gear 360 is not without its faults, namely Samsung’s decision to only support Samsung, iOS, and Mac OSX devices. Granted, this is an expansion from their original Samsung-only approach, but it will turn off some potential customers from buying or using their camera, however fantastic and affordable ($250) it may be. That leaves the market open for others that want to support the rest of the 360 market which includes companies like Ricoh, Nikon, Insta360, and many others.
The pricing of 360 cameras is significantly better than only 12 months ago, the standard price for cameras from LG, Samsung and others was $350 and up. However, now a quality 360 camera like Insta360’s Air for Android are available for as low as $129 and supports both microUSB and USB Type-C. Insta360 also makes a great 360 camera for iOS called the Insta360 Nano which sells for $199 and includes an integrated battery and microSD card slot so as not to drain your iPhone’s battery and use up all of its limited storage.
In fact, Insta360 may be the most underrated 360 camera company in the market as they have some of the best image stitching I have seen to date and are even preparing to launch their own 8K camera capable of stereoscopic 3D 360. They also have in my opinion the best social media connectivity with support for Periscope, Facebook, Facebook Live, YouTube, Instagram and other social networks. They really get the social importance of 360 images and videos and are extremely aggressive to enable those capabilities. The Insta360 Air and Nano cameras are without a doubt the best value on the market and may, along with the Samsung Gear 360, be what drives the bulk of 360 cameras user-generated content. Their pace of innovation is also extremely rapid, as they are continually launching new features on both the Insta360 Nano and Air including stabilization and new social networks like Facebook which they had ready when it was available to the public.
This is opposed to the $499 Nikon KeyMission 360 which has had some issues straight out of the gate. They had issues with their iOS app and getting the app to work with iOS devices. I had a pretty good time using it with my Google Pixel, but my biggest complaint was that the KeyMission 360 doesn’t really have any good way of sharing your content externally. Your content is essentially marooned on the camera or your phone until you move the files onto your computer or could take the downloaded files and shared them manually. I am also slightly disappointed with the image quality of the KeyMission 360, being a Nikon product and all, it really loses a lot of sharpness once you move away from the center of the lenses. But it is the only waterproof full 360 camera (Kodak’s requires two cameras to do full 360) so it could really be great for extreme sports and other scenarios where you might otherwise consider a GoPro. As a Nikon enthusiast, the KeyMission 360 did not meet my expectations and it felt rushed, almost like it was outsourced to another company to speed up the development.
Right now, the best places to share your 360 content online are Facebook, Google Photos, and YouTube. That is probably one of the things that needs to improve the most, in my opinion. Twitter enables 360 video via Periscope, but doesn’t support 360 photos which seems ridiculous to me. The same goes for Instagram, Facebook supports 360 photos and 360 videos but Instagram, their photography platform that they actually own, doesn’t. These incongruities really leave me puzzled, but I hope that they are merely a matter of time and that these features will be enabled soon.
Because, frankly, some of my 360 content does the best on Instagram and YouTube, but a man can only upload so many little planet style 360s before he (and his friends) get bored. I am thankful for Insta360’s ability to make sharing 360 content to Instagram possible with formats like little planet, but Instagram really needs to support 360 photos like Facebook.
Facebook likely delayed the public launch of their Facebook Live 360 feature until Samsung announced their new Gear 360 (2017) at the Galaxy Unpacked event where Samsung also launched their Galaxy S8 phone. It appears Facebook and Samsung are continuing their close relationship in VR with the Gear 360 Gen 2 and Gear VR. So, expect the two companies to continue to announce new features and hardware in tandem for the foreseeable future.
Thankfully, though, there are many other players in the VR and 360 space that are making it possible and easy to view and share 360 content as well. In fact, when I create content on my 360 cameras the photos and videos automatically back up to my Google Photos account which support 360 photos and videos and makes it easy to share with people that might not use Facebook or images that you don’t want to share on Facebook. Right now, Google and Facebook are your two primary options, but I suspect we might see others prop up like Snapchat, to challenge the current duopoly.
As I have said in the past, the platform wars are heating up and the 360 photo and video space is just a microcosm of it. I am hopeful that content support for 360 cameras will improve and that some companies will improve their image quality so that users can appreciate the content in the way it was originally captured. People’s internet connections and wireless connectivity are getting better and better every day and I believe that the live streaming platforms should account for technologies like Gigabit LTE and increase the bitrates and resolutions. From my experience, there are finally cameras out there that are good enough to satisfy most consumers demands and it’s just the platforms that need to catch up now.
Disclosure: My firm, Moor Insights & Strategy, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the industry, including Samsung Electronics and Qualcomm cited or related to this article. I do not hold any equity positions with any companies cited in this column.