LAS VEGAS — For virtual reality, 2016 was definitely the year of the headset. Several high-end models finally shipped, and dozens of inexpensive smartphone-based versions. However, despite a major industry investment in content, there aren’t enough compelling experiences to drive large-scale adoption of the technology. This year may see that change, as CES 2017 featured a raft of new VR capture devices. Companies producing them are convinced that user-generated content can help jumpstart VR the way YouTube did online video. Out of the many we saw at the show, here’s a round up of some of the most interesting.
VR suffers from an incredible muddle of terminology. For starters, the term 360 is used for both 180-degree and 360-degree products. VR is also used to describe both 2D and 3D (stereo) capture devices. In this article, I’ll use the product names, but then call out its capability in terms of 180 or 360, and 2D or 3D. To me, VR is at a minimum 360-degree and 3D, although purists would argue even that isn’t enough, unless you can also move around in the experience. Similarly, resolution specs aren’t standardized. Some products give per camera, or per eye, specs, and some provide the overall resolution of the output image. Here too will do our best to make things clear. Now, on to the products:
User-contributed content is what helped web video take off, and startups like Vuze believe the same will be true for the fledgling VR content industry. Unfortunately, quality 360-degree, 3D, video capture devices have been very expensive — ranging from $15K to over $100K. Vuze has introduced a prosumer-quality device for the very attractive price of $800. Featuring four stereo pairs of cameras, it provides a 360-degree 3D (stereo) image in 4K resolution. It also has four microphones (one in each direction) that can be used to create a form of spatial audio. With its aggressive pricing, and user-friendly Humaneyes software, Vuze is definitely going to open up VR content creation to an entirely new, and much larger, group of creatives than ever before.
The specs on Hubblo’s upcoming camera are very similar to those of the Vuze. It too produces 4K 30 fps 3D video, although it uses six cameras instead of eight. However, Hubblo’s custom FPGAs also support realtime stitching and streaming through a paired mobile device. That should make it popular with those wanting to set up a unit and broadcast events. The camera is a little more expensive, at about $1k, and is supposed to be available this quarter. However, the company hasn’t even started accepting pre-orders yet, so I’d take the ship date with a grain of salt.
For many, 360-degree video means VR. However, if you don’t at least have 3D, it isn’t really VR. And realistically, much VR content will be consumed in environments that don’t allow turning around anyway (think couches). To top that off, creating quality 360-degree content is hard. Getting yourself out of the scene is just the beginning of the challenges. So it makes sense that someone would create a 180-degree, 3D camera — at a compelling price point. That’s exactly what LucidCam has done. Their sub-$500, easy to use unit creates 2K 60 fps video (which reduces the artifacts when used for VR, at the expense of some resolution compared with 4K output). I’m a little concerned whether 2K video will hold up for immersive videos, but I’ll know more when I get a review unit.
Insta360 offers a range of 360-degree input devices, but the most interesting is the new 8K model introduced at CES. Using six 200-degree cameras and optical-flow-based stitching, it assembles 8K 360-degree video (at 30fps). For 3D, it’s limited to a still-impressive 6K. If the stitching software and image quality match up with the raw specs, that’s enough to equal some of the very-expensive pro models on the market. You do pay for all this tech though. The company expects the Pro to sell for about $3,000 when it is available later this quarter.
There were several 360-degree cameras at CES that work by attaching to your smartphone. One that was attracting interest is the newly-shipping LyfieEye, which illustrates some of the pros and cons of this approach. On the positive side, you get 360 photos and video inexpensively (most of these add-ons are between $100 and $200 — less than half the price of even a low-end standalone unit). Plus they are tightly-integrated with your phone for quick processing, organizing, and sharing.
However, there are a couple major drawbacks. First, image quality is limited by the form factor and available power. The LyfieEye, for example, only outputs 1080p at 30 fps — hardly enough for a quality headset experience. Second, and less obvious, is that remote control of your 360 camera is a key feature, that is lacking in these units. Because the smartphone is normally the remote, and here it needs to be connected to the camera, it is hard to put the camera somewhere and hide yourself from the scene. So, these add-on cameras are most useful on a selfie-stick, and should be thought of as a way for selfie-lovers to go to the next step by creating 360-degree versions.
User-created VR content may be the next big thing in VR, but I suspect it will also make a lot more people sick. It is hard enough for professionals to create VR (or even front-facing 3D) experiences that are suitable for mass viewing without side effects. Amateurs are likely to do much worse. So it was with some interest that I’ve been trying out Relief Band — a watch-like wearable that intermittently applies a small current to the inside of your wrist. Its effect is to more or less shut down your medial nerve, which reduces nausea in chemotherapy patients and others.
Now the company is marketing the device to the VR community. In my limited testing, it seems to work. But it’ll be awhile before I’m fully convinced it isn’t just a placebo effect.