Are 360˚ cameras here to stay? Are they useful for something or just another gimmick to try and flog a new format? Is 360 video / photography the new 3D and like it, (some say) destined to flop?
The market – in Australia at least – is serviced by only a small number of 360˚ cameras, and you’ll have to dig to try and find some of those even. Over the last few months, we have been attempting to snaffle as many as we can and have finally given up after getting four for the purposes of this review.
These are the 360Fly, GoPro Fusion, Ricoh Theta V and Samsung Gear 360. Attempts at getting a Garmin VIRB have so far proven useless and despite much back and forth dialogue with the producers of the VUZE (allegedly the Next Big Thing), we have yet to see any of their models either, although we have been promised, sort of, the newest model due end November / early December.
So, we decided to go ahead and have a play with each of the ones we do have, see how they stack up, both stand alone and against each other, check out the software available for them (if any) and what uses they could be put to.
We have had the 360Fly the longest and so it has seen the most action. In fact, it was over a year ago we first saw the 360Fly and this is what tickled our fancy in to the possibilities of 360 video and photography and VR from these sources.
Unlike the other models we have, the 360Fly uses a single lens to capture footage so is not a truly 360˚ beastie as areas “under” the lens are not captured. In reality, ut is more of 360˚ horizontal plane and 240˚ vertical plane uit.
Video is recorded at resolutions of 2,880 x 2,880 at 30fps or 24fps plus 1,728 x 1,728 at 60fps
Looking somewhat like a cross between a golf ball and a hand grenade with a scalloped triangular patterned surface, the 360Fly is operated by a single button embedded into the surface of the camera. If you are short of sight, it can be a little hard to find, although later models have had its size increased.
A small multicoloured LED also embedded into the surface tells you the camera mode at the time, along with a built in Haptic system of vibrations and buzzes.
On the underside of the hand grenade – sorry, camera (at a New Year fireworks event last year which we filmed with the 360Fly mounted to a railing, someone did actually call a security guard thinking it WAS a “suspicious package”) – is a single bespoke mounting point apparently called Quicktwist technology. Later models are waterproof, but if you buy an earlier from Ebay or similar, make sure that the little waterproofing “plug” is attached.
This mount type relies on you having different adaptors to attach the 360Fly to something such as a tripod, handlebars, helmet etc and these need to be purchased separately. Out of the box, no mounts were supplied in our case.
Additionally, to charge the 360Fly or download data from it, you need to mount the camera in a special adaptor letting you plug in a USB cable. Unlike say the GoPro, there are no “sticky mounts” supplied for windscreen or helmet attachment and I found the easiest way was to source a 360Fly to GoPro adaptor for anything beyond basic stuff.
A smartphone app for Android and iOS (including the Apple Watch) is available to control the 360Fly and let you see what you are shooting, and it needs both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to take full advantage. You can however just press the onboard button to record on-the-fly (pardon the pun). Depending on how (shott press, long press) depends on what the camera will do and tells you by the different colours of the onboard LED.
The app is quite sophisticated in its operations and interaction with the 360Fly. As well as simply setting the shooting mode (webcam, frame rate, duration, delay etc) you are also able to choose such parameters as sensitivity, GPS information, configure Bluetooth and Wi-Fi settings and so on. It also allows you to set accelerometer-triggered, motion-triggered and sound-triggered recording modes.
The 360Fly desktop app I have a problem with. Compared to “standard” video editing programs I do not find it at all intuitive I am afraid, and very limiting in its scope. To be fair, you can load up a clip, mark in and out points and save the resultant edited clip under another name, and add some filters but if you want to do any further “twiddling” such as colour control, brightness / contrast or audio changes, you need to export out to more advanced NLEs using a special equirectangular image format these will read.
This format is also used to export formats for YouTube and Facebook.
The menus are not that intuitive and to find things, you may need to dig around a little and experiment.
You can export a 360 video to YouTube or Facebook however.
Quality I found so-so. Other cameras, notably the GoPro, had far better video image quality than the 360Fly and the not-quite 360˚ view gives you “polar ice caps” to contend with ie: black spots where the lenses are blind.
A quick look around the internet at other reviews imply the 360Fly 4K unit (there is also an HD only model) is excellent but note that many of these reviews are more than 18 months old and other makes / models have leap frogged the 360Fly in my opinion.
I also found getting support an issue. The website is abysmal, more often than not simply linking every command to some marketing page offering discounts. The actual support site is a totally different web address than the 360Fly main one – which is an online shop only it seems. Indeed, at the time of writing many of the website pages were giving errors of “unknown IP address” so I am not sure what is happening there.
The 360Fly sells for around AUD$600 for the 4K model.
GoPro has had a couple of cracks at the 360˚ market; before the Fusion for example was a model made up of separate GoPros “caged” together to shoot in 4 different directions simultaneously. The Fusion however uses a standard opposed twin lens set up, each taking a shot and the internals of the camera “stitching” them together for later editing in the GoPro Fusion app.
The body of the Fusion is larger than the standard GoPro chassis by at least a factor of three. Under one small hatch is the USB port and on the opposite side is a larger one for the battery, and snugged away in the sides are the twin SD card ports. The covers have a tendency to pop out of their hinges, and it took me a while to work out they were designed this way – for easier access one presumes – and there are instructions for popping them back in thankfully.
The internal settings system is typically GoPro, and if you have used any of their 3,4,5 6 or new 7 models, you’ll romp it in with the Fusion. A twin button affair (front and side) in concert, control all of the settings and a small thumbnail LCD lets you see what you have chosen. The standard GoPro smartphone app is used to control the Fusion including recording on / off as well as resolution (up to 5.2K), frame rate, voice control enabling (a very cool feature!), GPS settings and more.
A nice touch is the QuikCapture setting enabling the ability to power on and record automatically with the press of a single button. It’s fast too. Whether in normal or QuikCapture, audio is in full surround sound by the way.
As mentioned, storage is to a pair of SD cards (and these are supplied); this means a bit of jiggery pokey is necessary when capturing the footage into the GoPro Fusion desktop top, with the folders on each card needing to be placed inside a master folder. The software then reads the files and stitches them correctly from the front and rear cameras.
A special mode called Overcapture lets you set a point of view (POV) and then view the video from this point making it useful for sharing with your friends via smartphone or social media applications that support.
Stabilization has also been improved and no longer is it necessary almost mandatory use a 3rd party app such as ProDrenalin to smooth out lumps and bumps.
The Fusion is waterproof to a depth of 5 metres but experienced divers / snorkellers will know the imagery you get may disappoint due to water refraction, and this will be compounded with the increased fish eye distortion from the twin lenses. Stick to a standard GoPro or other ‘action cam” is my tip for that sort of video / photography duty!
The GoPro Fusion desktop software is pretty straight forward to use, with, at the time of writing, a caveat.
You can either import the footage for editing directly from the camera and use the preferences section to select where to save the edited and final stitched version or alternatively, copy the contents of the SD cards to a folder as mentioned earlier. I suggest the latter method as it is faster for the rendering and stitching and frees the camera up from the cables as well as using camera power.
There are a fair number of tweaks you can make to your footage using the GoPro Fusion software but at present, there is a potential problem with the current version. All three of my computers (A Dell desktop, Dell All-In-One and an ASUS laptop) display the contents of drop-down menus in gibberish. It appears an incorrect (or uninstalled) font is being called and as such, you have no idea what these options so.
I resorted to looking at online tutorials and making notes; the issue has been with GoPro for over 6 weeks now and despite many conversations, emails and uploads of video diagnostics etc to them, is still not resolved. It is particularly frustrating as on its own website, others have recorded the same issue that apparently was evident in earlier versions and supposedly been fixed.
The desktop app does allow exporting in different formats for YouTube, Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo and does let you override the standard settings for each. The Fusion app does not let you export directly to these social media apps however as say the Samsung app does. You can also export for later editing in an NLE.
A separate app is available by the way to view your finished product called the GoPro VR app, and we also have successfully loaded videos to the new Vegas VR Studio 365 app (which is also very cool!)
Video quality is excellent and there is little or no evidence of stitch lines.
At $899 the Fusion is the most expensive of the four cameras we tested, but it is up there as one of the ones to seriously look at. It comes with a carry bag, the aforementioned SD cards, mounts and sticky pads plus a nifty combo tripod / selfie stick in the price.
Samsung Gear 360
The first time Jacqui (my partner) saw the Samsung Gear 360, as a long-term South Park fan she shrieked “It’s Kenny!” referring to the hapless character who is constantly being killed and habitually wears a space suit in the series.
This 4K based 360˚ camera is indeed a very different shape from all the others we reviewed, looking for all the world like a baleful eye in a sphere on top of a pole.
Actually, there are two eyes – front and rear – and the pole contains the majority of the controls in conjunction with a smartphone app to drive the Samsung Gear 360. These include a record video or still on / off button, (depending on the mode) a small LCD screen showing the current settings, a menu button, back button and a small slide out tray to hold the microSD card.
Be aware, if you have even slightly fragile finger nails, be prepared to break them when attempting to slide out this tray. My tip is to use a small flat edge jeweller’s screwdriver.
Oh and another tips that applies to at least the Samsung; do not format the microSD card in anything but NTFS as they seem to get upset otherwise and show up as the dreaded ‘SD Card ?’ icon!
The base of the “pole” has a standard tripod thread and for some inexplicable reason, as the Samsung Gear 360 is NOT water proof, a “life savers ring” on a rope is also attached.
Setting the camera up is easy: simply choose your mode settings using the Mode button and the LCD screen (you can see this in sunny daylight quite happily) and set your recording type, frame rate and resolution if applicable and press the Big Button on the front to start.
Likewise, the smartphone app is very straightforward letting you set sound and LED properties, auto power on/off, show battery status and recording space left and a Gallery view of recorded footage.
Digging down a level takes you to more techie items such as video size from either a twin or single lens set up, setting the onboard timer, ISO, image sharpness, wind noise reduction and tagging PS data within the imagery.
With the Samsung Gear 360, you can also record live using your smartphone to Facebook, YouTube and Samsung VR account.
Footage is stitched together automatically in the camera by the way (whereas previous versions of this camera used the phone power to do it).
For external editing, there is software called the Gear360 ActionDirector available for both Windows and Mac. This program has been designed (and is branded) by Cyberlink who have been mucking around with video apps for a long term and certainly know what they are doing in this area. Its solid, practical and gets the job done although the direct connectivity to YouTube can tend to be a bit dodgy and we found a little hit and miss.
The price of the Samsung Gear 360 is around the $399 mark.
Ricoh Theta V
Ricoh is the only on the companies we selected with 360˚ cameras that is also noted as a “traditional” camera manufacturer. They have been around forever it seems, but has its skills learnt over the years spilt over to the Theta?
The design of the Theta reminds me very much of the very first digital camera I saw and used, the Nikon Coolpix (version 1) way back in the mid 1990s. It has a dual lens setup with a front mounted record on / off button and side mounted controls embedded into the gun metal grey body – which incidentally is plastic and could tend to fragility if you are not careful, I suspect.
Make sure you become familiar what each controlling button does as the labels are very hard to read and not etched in a particularly contrasting colour.
There is a Ricoh Theta V smartphone app for Android and IOS which is easy to set up and use giving you access to all the main features and functions and settings you’ll need. In short, as all good apps should, it does exactly what it says on the tin, a major bonus with no fiddling around to find settings etc.
Setting up the Theta V is equally as simple as the Samsung, with the manual giving clear instruction as to each button’s use. I made some quick notes as I went using the very excellent Microsoft OneNote app (which is available free for Windows, Mac, Android and iPhone / iPad) so that on the go, if I forget, I have quick reference guide at my fingertips.
(Pro Tip: I use OneNote for many things along these lines. Check it out. Yes, IT does connect to OneDrive which some people abhor the thought of, but it is transparent in that and you don’t need to actually USE OneDrive. Isn’t it funny though how so many folks are happy to share their innermost secrets and photos etc with Google but not a secure system such as OneDrive. Go figure).
The captured video is very clear, especially in 4K (it uses the fish eye spherical format) and low light is well catered for. HDR is photo mode with 14 megapixel stills is also supported.
If you want to transfer the footage from the Theta V to your smartphone, the transfer rate is very impressive. Likewise is the audio which uses 4 mics on board to capture spatial audio, or you can add an external mic using the bottom mounted 3.5mm jack point.
One drawback is that memory is on board only and there is only 19GB available; there is no microSD card slot making that fast transfer speed to smartphone all the more necessary to free up space). The stabilization is not as good as the GoPro (but in defence none of the others are either) and the Theta V is NOT waterproof, although a housing, albeit expensive, is available.
My tip, if you really want to shoot stuff while snorkelling or diving, at this stage forget the 360˚ thing and get a dedicated camera – or as close to it as you can. The results will just disappoint you otherwise.
What I do like is the ergonomics of the Theta V. Like its far-removed cousin, the Nikon Coolpix version 1, it is dead easy to carry around, grab quickly and set it in record mode. A bottom mounted thread is available, so if like many, you tromp around daily with a backpack, a small Joby and the Theta V is fantastic setup in conjunction with your smartphone.
Ricoh has no editing app of its own, instead relying on 3rd parties that support the fisheye spherical format or can convert that to equirectangular. Inexpensive apps for that include Corel Video Studio and Pinnacle Studio, plus Vegas Pro 16 can do the job. The Ricoh Theta V online forum also recommend Adobe’s Premiere Pro and Final Cut X but you may have to “inject” 360 metadata into the footage in order for say YouTube or Facebook to read it correctly. The thread for that is at https://developers.theta360.com/en/forums/viewtopic.php?t=54
The price of the Ricoh Theta is around $599.
If we had to make a choice of only one of the four tested here, we’d go for the GoPro as it has the most features and the mounting system has become a pseudo standard with mounts available for cars, motor bikes, boats, cyclists, skiers, skydivers and even dogs! In our tests, the Fusion had the best image quality pipping the Ricoh Theta V by only a whisker admittedly. And to us, waterproofing / weatherproofing IS important.
However, life ain’t that simple; for example, if I was doing a professional shoot for a project such as we are putting together for a showcase of Vegas VR Studio 365, the GoPro wins it hands down, but for a fun day out to capture a get together of family and friends, the Ricoh Theta would be my choice as it is quick to whip out and get recording plus showing others how to use it is a breeze.
If I was fishing in the boat, the form factor of the 360Fly is easily the best with a bracket on the transom carrying the camera and being controlled by my Samsung smartphone safely tucked away in the dry in the cabin.
For a live streaming system, the Samsung is the easiest to set up and use, plus it is a part of the Samsung Gear VR ecosystem with the headset also being available.
In other words, like any other purchase, first weigh up exactly what your needs are and go accordingly.
What Can 360˚ Cameras be used for
It is fair to say that for many the usage of 360˚ cameras is gimmicky thing, albeit a bit of fun giving a new “view” on things. But there are more serious uses when the obtained footage is added to software designed to use it.
The best example we have seen so far is Vegas VR Studio 365 from MAGIX. This product allows you to create 360˚ VR “scenes” and link them to gather to build a virtual world.
These scenes could be holiday videos, tutorials or in one we are creating, a marketing tool for Tall Timbers tavern here in Manjimup (Western Australia). Inside a “scene” can be placed hot spots to other scenes, images, text, audio and more the viewer can click on and allow an “action” to take place.
Further, a completed set of scenes and associated media that is embedded can be exported and then viewed on a website using a VR player, or even in a VR headset.
The potential uses are therefore unlimited and restricted only by your own imagination.
Some exports from NLEs in 360˚ format may not be read correctly by players and websites, notably YouTube and Facebook
There is a trick you can use to fix this (this example uses the Samsung Gear 360 camera and Vegas Pro 16 NLE, but the principle is the same for most NLEs – except the “Dual Fisheye Stitching” step.
- Add your video to Vegas
- Add “Dual Fisheye Stitching” plugin to the clip and use the “Samsung Gear 360°” preset
- Do whatever you want with other plugins (colour grading etc.)
- Render/save the video…
- Inject the meta tag “is 360 Video” with this Youtube tool. https://github.com/google/spatial-media/releases/tag/v2.0
- Upload on Youtube or Facebook
Additionally, The GoPro fusion supports 5.7k which is not “really supported” by the mp4/H264 codec.
The solution is doing a quite quick re-encode (smart encoding), because the “magic numbers” at the beginning of the file need to be written correctly for mpeg4.