The Race to Build the Best VR Camera is Escalating

Google is working with new camera manufacturers IMAX and Yi Technology to ramp up production

2016 Google I/O Keynote in Two Minutes

One of the most impressive things Google unveiled at its developers conference last May was an odd, disc-shaped gadget called the Odyssey. The device, which measured about a foot in diameter, held 16 GoPro cameras that pointed every which way, so that it could film in 360 degrees. Buyers would get access to Google’s software for stitching the synced videos from each camera into virtual reality videos, intended to be watched on headsets like Facebook's Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard. Turning the raw footage into actual videos is a heavy-duty computing task, and Google wrote software to do it on its own servers. The sticker price? $15,000. 

Companies like Google and Facebook think that virtual reality is going to be a major way that people use computers in the future. For this to happen, there has to be content that people can watch on VR headsets. That means creating elaborate multi-camera devices commonly referred to as camera rigs. Google wasn't thrilled with the homemade devices and software systems that many filmmakers were using. So it set out to make its own. The result was the Odyssey.

The Google GoPro Odyssey.
The Google GoPro Odyssey.
Source: Google VR

There aren't a lot of professional VR cameras on the market, and Google and GoPro knew that demand would outpace supply. Potential Odyssey buyers had to apply for the privilege, sharing their YouTube profiles and links to their past work. Fulfilling those orders has been an even slower process than they expected. The Odysseys were supposed to ship in November, but it wasn’t until last week that GoPro announced it had sent out its first batch. It said 10 VR film studios had bought Odysseys, including Wevr, Vrse, and River Studios. Neither Google nor GoPro has said how many of the devices have actually been made or sold.

On Thursday, Google said it was adding two new camera manufacturers. IMAX, the large-format movie company, will build a “cinema-grade” VR rig, something Google says that Hollywood has been asking it for. Yi Technology, a Chinese firm that makes a GoPro competitor and home security cameras, will also build its own rig based on Google’s designs. It's a sign that Google really wants to get moving. And, judging from the experience of the handful of other companies building VR cameras, it could be a slog. Jaunt, one of the leaders in the field, has constructed just 25 of its newest camera, the Jaunt One-- far fewer than it originally projected. Another VR camera company, Lytro, says it has made fewer than 10 of its Immerge cameras so far. 

While the high-end manufacturers proceed slowly, amateurs are making cheaper, cruder models. The tradeoffs in quality can be significant, but there is no single standard for how to shoot virtual reality video. There's not even a firm definition of what virtual reality video is. Nearly every company making a camera will tell you that all the products that are less sophisticated than its own are bound to be unsatisfying, and that anything more sophisticated is unnecessary and probably impractical.

There are fewer than a dozen companies producing high-end camera rigs today. Nokia sells a camera called the Ozo for $60,000.  Jaunt and Lytro don’t sell their devices at all, instead asking potential clients to rent them in bespoke deals, the terms of which are not public. Both companies are hoping to leverage demand for their cameras to build businesses in other areas of the virtual reality industry that may exist in the future. 

Jaunt and Lytro are making the same bet as Google: that VR is going to be ubiquitous, and having gotten in on the ground floor will look smart once this whole thing is bigger than TV. But it's not a business for those who prioritize getting rich in the short term. There just aren't that many people looking to drop tens of thousands of dollars to experiment with a new type of film. “It cannot be over-emphasized how small the pool is of creators that are working now," said Kel O'Neill, a filmmaker who has been working on virtual reality for the last several years. 

 

The Lytro Immerge at work on a tripod. 
The Lytro Immerge at work on a tripod. 
Source: Lytro

Last summer, O’Neill was working on a virtual reality film about northern white rhinos. The species is critically endangered — there were only four animals still alive when O’Neill was planning his shoot — and he worried that it would go extinct while he negotiated access to a camera. “We didn’t have time to strike a deal with a VR studio that would provide us with a camera — a deal that would be fair to us,” he said. “And we didn’t have time to sit around and wait for the technology to improve.” 

In the end, O'Neill used a relatively cheap DIY device he called a ball of GoPros: basically a collection of camera cases that can hold ten cameras in a shape approximating a sphere. Each time he wanted to record, he had to press the shutter on each camera, and the video he got wasn't up to the standards that high-end camera manufacturers think it necessary for people watching films through headsets to feel like they're really there. But he got to the rhinos before they all died. "The tradeoff may be illusory," said O'Neill.

The simplest kind of virtual reality can be captured with devices that cost well under $1,000. The images are panoramic, but flat. This technique, alternately referred to as monoscopic video or two-dimensional 360 video, surrounds people with a scene, but doesn’t quite put them in it. The effect is kind of like standing in a cylindrical room with video screens covering the walls and the ceiling.

Adding more cameras to a rig allows filmmakers to capture videos with depth. Instead of the entire video looking like it’s on a wall, objects in the foreground appear closer, and everything begins to take on an element of depth. Sensors in the headset track the motions of a viewer’s head, and the video shifts perspectives, mimicking what happens in the physical world.

This is where the computing gets complicated. Rendering these images requires stitching videos from far more cameras — one company claims to be able to do it with eight of them, others use three times that many. This creates huge unwieldy files that have to be managed with precision to create convincing videos. In many of the higher-end cameras, the distinctions come largely from the software. Getting it right is difficult. "A lot of stuff that I’ve seen that is relatively easy to produce doesn’t feel real,” said Eugene Chung, the former head of film and media at Oculus who now runs a virtual reality studio called Penrose Studios. 

 

Jaunt's stereoscopic VR camera.
Jaunt's stereoscopic VR camera.
Source: Jaunt

At the highest end of the market is Lytro, whose technology many filmmakers see as the best bet to fully realize the potential of VR video. Its camera, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to make, purports to allow viewers to physically move around inside a video, just as they would in the real world. VR types refer to this concept as “six degrees of freedom.” 

To get there, Lytro uses a technique known as light field photography. Cameras based on this idea record the intensity of light bouncing off objects, as well as the direction that the light waves flow. (Standard cameras capture only intensity of light). The extra information adds a level of depth that allows Lytro to do all sorts of weird things with photography.

Jason Rosenthal, the company’s CEO, says everyone else making 360 video is limited by a refusal to break from the past. “What all of them are trying to do is take what is inherently a 2D technology and force fit it into this new medium,” he said. 

Camera manufacturers that aren't pursuing six degrees of freedom refer to it as kind of a science experiment. Most of the virtual reality headsets around today couldn’t actually take advantage of the unique aspects of such a camera, and the amount of data needed to make each video would make it hard to distribute them. “Although such a camera is technically feasible, it may turn out to be impractical for most purposes,” said Arthur van Hoff, the chief technical officer at Jaunt. 

Facebook, which is likely to be one of Google’s primary competitors in virtual reality, recently announced its own approach to increase the supply of 360 degree cameras. At its developers conference last month it said it had plans for its own camera rig, which looks like a flying saucer and holds 17 cameras. (That's one more than Google’s.) Facebook is also creating processing software and plans to post the instructions for the rig and the code for anyone to download for free. 

Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants to record his daughter’s first steps in virtual reality. But Brian Cabral, the director of engineering for the company’s 360 camera project, doesn’t foresee its camera being used for family videos anytime soon. While Facebook might want to encourage the creation of more user-created videos posted to its newsfeeds, Cabral is concerned that badly shot VR videos will make people nauseous. This could turn them off from the medium altogether – even if those videos do feature adorable toddlers.

Cabral thinks that virtual reality cameras will eventually filter down to the masses, as most unattainable technologies eventually do. “The cost will come down, I don't lose any sleep over that," he said. But that could take years, and Facebook is careful to stress that its VR camera project isn't for the point and shoot crowd. Even though the company is making the instructions for its camera available for free, the cost of construction is about $30,000.  

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