360-degree cameras add perspective to sharing stories
360-degree cameras are becoming increasingly popular among consumers as major brand names compete for the best price and video quality. The cameras take video from all angles, producing uniquely immersive footage that viewers can "look around" in during playback.
There are many 360-degree cameras on the market, released by tech brands including Samsung, Ricoh, and 360fly. They vary widely in outer appearance and user-friendliness, but they rely on the same technology. Each camera has multiple wide-angle lenses (usually two) that record video simultaneously, and uses powerful software to patch together the views from different lenses in a process called video stitching.
Video stitching is based on image stitching, which is what happens in your phone when you take a panorama. In the first step, called registration, the software searches for spots where the images' edges line up, then minimizes the distance between them. Next is calibration, when the software makes the calculations needed to reduce distortion and other visual effects caused by the camera lenses, attempting to make the image look as if it was taken with a single perfect lens. Finally, in the blending stage, the adjustments from the calibration stage are applied, as well as a few other final touches: the seams where the images meet are smoothed, and the colors and lighting in each separate image are adjusted for overall consistency in the composite image. Because many 360-degree cameras are designed for live streaming, they are equipped with software powerful enough to complete the image stitching process incredibly fast for each frame of video, so that the video can broadcast immediately.
360-degree photography is not a new invention, or even an uncommon one: security cameras (the ones that look like a black dome) have used the technology for decades. So why is it just now becoming available to everyday consumers? The rise of smartphones.
Smartphones contain the same kind of tiny, efficient, powerful processors that 360-degree cameras need. As manufacturers competed over the past several years to improve these components, they became stronger and more reliable, and their ubiquity drove the price down significantly. As camera quality became a major competitive point for smartphones, the same effect applied to small, portable lenses — also an essential component of 360-degree cameras. Because the prices of parts went down so much, companies can build the cameras for cheaper, and price them cheaper as well. “There are sensors that now cost $1 instead of $1,000 because they’re used in smartphones,” says Jeffrey Martin, CEO of 360-degree-camera startup Sphericam. Finally, many 360-degree cameras are marketed as smartphone accessories and controlled through apps.
According to Futuresource Consulting, 360-degree cameras made up 1 percent of consumer camera sales last year and are projected to hit 4 percent this year.