Why 360 video is the next big thing in tech
The world is one big round place, and the problem is, we've been looking at a cropped view of it for way too long.
But thanks to new technology advancements in cameras and online algorithms, we can now zap open our smartphones and see all around us - in front, back, to the left and right, above and below, in full spherical, 360 view.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, 360 video and virtual reality (VR) was the big talk of the show, from huge companies like YouTube and corporate parent Google, to Facebook's Oculus Rift and camera makers GoPro, Ricoh and 360fly.
With 360, viewers "get to be completely engrossed, and go to places they've never been", said Andy Peacock, product head at camera start-up 360fly. (360 is often used interchangeably with virtual reality, though the latter typically indicates you're using goggles for an immersive experience.
Beyond VR for gaming, much talk at CES also concerned 360 for photography.
YouTube's chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl talked about how VR was going to dramatically change the mobile viewing experience.
We currently watch 1.5 hours a day of digital video, he said, compared to five hours daily for TV. But he sees digital video surpassing TV within four years, with VR being a huge driver for the shift.
"On YouTube, we made a big, early bet on 360-degree video because it is the first type of video that actually gives you a better experience on mobile than you can have on desktop or on your TV," said Kyncl. "And since we know mobile video is exploding, formats that lend themselves to mobile storytelling will grow along with them."
What's been holding back both filmmakers and the average person from diving into 360 in a big way is the limitations of how 360 video gets made.
To get the full view, you usually need to use a bunch of cameras tapped together, and then "stitch" or piece the views together in video editing. That process can take hours, days, even weeks.
Several camera manufacturers looked to solve that issue here, with small, consumer-grade cameras that are easier to use, can be toted around, and promise to eliminate the stitching issues.
The Ricoh Theta S, released in late 2015, won the CES 2016 Innovation award, and the new 360fly company showed a new model at the show, a compact spherical camera in the shape of a little ball, that expands the category by shooting 360 video in 4K resolution.
"No longer are you limited to these very expensive complicated rigs that use multiple cameras," says Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging, which makes the Theta. "Now you have a simple product you can put in your pocket and push a button and join the revolution."
The Theta is so popular, Ricoh is having a hard time keeping them in stock.
The 360fly 4K model hasn't announced pricing, but is expected to sell in the US$500 range later this year. The company also showed up a new helmet cam for serious cyclists and motorcycle riders, with a built-in 360 camera.
Longtime camera maker Nikon also announced a new 360 cam here at CES, the KeyMission 360, with two lenses. No pricing or availability was revealed.
The cameras are easier than the multiple rig set-ups, but there are still editing issues and apps to download to process the files. They offer one-click instant uploads to Facebook and YouTube's 360 channel, where they can be viewed as is, with the user moving the image around to see more, or via a viewer, like Google's Cardboard.
These 360 cams "have the potential of bringing VR to consumers sooner than later", says Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies and "allow anyone to create content for VR".
He sees real estate, sports, travel and advertising as great potential markets for 360.
With a 360 cam, "a cruise line could shoot a room a person might want to book and put them in the room so that they can walk in the room, see what it looks like and perhaps even walk the ship to see how it looks and what amenities it offers".
Real estate agents could offer virtual tours, and advertisers could use 360 to put customers directly into the action, or use it to explain a product or service more fully, he adds.
GoPro chief executive Nick Woodman said he saw 360 as the next chapter in GoPro's evolution.
The company will release a super rig aimed at pros this year. A 15-camera GoPro unit, the US$16,000 Odyssey, in partnership with YouTube-owner Google, promises "Jump" software that will eliminate stitching.
Woodman says he hopes to follow up shortly afterwards with a consumer grade, one-camera GoPro 360 setup.
VR "is what's next", Woodman said. With VR "you can teleport people into a new experience and blow their minds. It's not a question of if, but when it will become adopted by consumers. This is the same type of content that's made GoPro so successful. If we're not innovating, we cease to be relevant."
Is 2016 the year virtual reality becomes a reality? You can bet on it.