Scan the horizon and you might notice a whole new landscape. After a decade of smartphone cameras that sat flat enough to slide into your tightest pockets, we’re suddenly surrounded by a whole new category of cameras that adds a bit more bulk, but also an extra dimension. If the camera industry appears to be doing a 180, it’s because we’re starting to want everything in 360.
Whether via the rise of virtual reality or through the proliferation of social media platforms like Facebook 360, the presence of and demand for 360-degree photos and videos is everywhere you look.
On Facebook, for instance, 360 still and motion experiences are increasingly common for everything from big time journalism to family vacation photos, and are explorable across platforms by dragging a cursor on a desktop, swiping a finger on a smartphone, or donning a headset and simply looking around.
Once the ephermeral chat app Snapchat rebranded and expanded into the “camera company” Snap Inc. and went public, rumors about what form the company’s hardware ambitions would take started to swirl, with the wearable Spectacles offering an early (if slightly limited) glimpse. (A new AR-enhanced version of the glasses is reportedly underway.) Since then there’s been scattered buzz about Snap-developed drones, phones, and 360 cameras — but you'd need a crystal ball (or a surveillance cam) to see any of them in action.
One 2016 projection from the Consumer Technology agency expected its 2016 forecast of 400 percent growth in 360 camera sales to double that jump in 2017, and for prices of the cameras to relax into sub-$300 territory — right now, 360 camera manufacturers appear to be auditioning shapes and sizes as well as testing our debit cards.
But even among this early crop of consumer level 360 cameras, there are some models worth snapping up and taking for a spin.
Big names like Samsung and LG have entered the 360 sphere with the Gear 360 and LG360, respectively. The Gear 360 ($229.99) fuses its orb shaped camera to an easily gripped handle (so it’s quite good for sports), and allows you to record in 4K 360 or broadcast live video. A corresponding app lets you edit the footage into five different viewing modes (“dual,” for instance, splits the screen and gives both sides of a conversation.
The LG360 ($199.99) sticks to a stickish approach — its slim body recalls an old-timey flash drive more than an old-timey webcam. Less expensive and less robust with features than the Samsung, the LG is great for casual on-the-go use — its case doubles as a handle — and can toggle between traditional 180 and 360-degree shots. Its sharing and editing capabilities aren’t terrific, but it’ll get you started for two bills.
Meanwhile, more camera-centric companies are experimenting with 360 as well. Ricoh’s Theta ($349.99) takes a similar physical tack as LG, but makes up for its higher price point with a 14 megapixel sensor, instant sharing and livestreaming capabilities, and easy switching between video and still shooting.
Kodak offers a high-end 360 option with its forthcoming PIXPRO Orbit 360 4K ($499.99) and uses two fixed focus lenses working in tandem to capture vivid 4K video. For more rough and tumble functionality, the shock-proof, freeze-proof, dust-proof, and splash-proof SP360 ($259.99) makes a better option — but though it soars upward on your drone, your video quality drops down to 1080p.
And of course, a bunch of small-time startups are helping to complete the picture. The ALLie Camera ($499, but on promotion at $299) is geared primarily toward at-home use, capturing 360 video with two fisheye lenses and dual 8 megapixel sensors, and is designed to record and/or broadcast 24/7 (it’s a thing) and connect seamlessly to YouTube and Facebook. The 360fly 4k is more of a tough cookie, sporting just one lens and no spherical image, but boasting high versatility, a hard shell, and two versions ($499.99 for the 4K, $299.99 for the HD).
For a slightly higher-end solution, the tripod-mounted Vuze VR Camera ($799.99) rightfully snagged an innovation award at CES this year for its eight-camera recorder, which uses two 360 images to create 4K video with stereoscopic depth, complete with multi-directional audio.
Or, if you’d rather be your own tripod (bipod, whichever), the Indiegogo-spawned Orbi Prime ($229) is worth looking into — quite literally, it’s a pair of sunglasses. Hands-free and not hideous or anything, the Orbi uses four 1080 cameras and features built-in video stabilization and WiFi for easy sharing.
How this expanded field of personal photography will pan out in the long run remains to be seen. This newly exploded frame could either revolutionize the entire medium, or it could just elevate your shots from Timmy’s first communion to new, immersive levels of dullness. I, for one, will happily take any technology that demands we look more closely at the world around us — even if it means my “good side” might never be seen again.