Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The future of photography is here - Featuring Samsung Gear 360 VR Camera


Virtual reality (VR) is quite an old technological proposition. It has been around for donkey years and at some point in the far past, has been subject of many sci-fi movies. Its hard to believe that it was described in late 1930s and was coined into the Oxford dictionary in late 1980s.

Modern use and up-trending of VR has largely been as a result of the availability and very low cost of head-mounted-displays (HMDs) popularly know as VR headsets. That is further strengthened by advances in video game production, which saw a lot of VR games becoming mainstream.

Computing power in smartphones nowadays is much stringer that the spacecraft that took America to the moon. This meant more sophisticated gaming with multi sensory input and haptic feedback can be programmed into portable games that can be played on smartphones. My first VR game was the Zombie Shooter VR, which is quite fun (and scary)

Enough of this nostalgic blurb about where we are coming from, we are here now, in 2016, Ooops 2017, and the Samsung Gear 360 is here with us, capable of shooting impeccable super-resolution (4K) photos and videos. This is indeed a culmination of many technological advances, but to be able to capture such breath taking images with a tiny, beautiful camera, is a stroke of genius. I received mine courtesy of The Insiders Network for the #Insidersgear360 campaign.

In its packaging

Samsung Gear 360 on its cute tripod

The camera on its own

The little tripod folded
Slightly smaller than a tennis ball
USB charging

In the field

Out of packaging

Compatibility Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, Note 5, S7, S7 edge with the Samsung
Gear 360 app; PCs with the Gear 360 Action Director software
Sensor 2 x 15 MP CMOS
Lens Aperture f/2.0
Field of View 180° per lens
Chipset DRIMe5s
Video Format : MP4 (H.265)
Video Resolution Dual Cam: 3840 x 1920 at 30 fps
Single Cam: 2560 x 1440 at 30 fps
Image Format JPEG
Image Resolution Dual Cam: 7776 x 3888 (30 MP)
Single Cam: 3072 x 1728 (5 MP)
Audio Codec: MP3/AAC/AAC+/eAAC+
Format: MP3, M4A, AAC, OGG
Memory 1 GB built-in RAM
microSD card up to 128 GB
Display 0.5" (72 x 32) PMOLED
Connectivity WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz)
WiFi Direct
Bluetooth 4.1
USB 2.0
Sensors Accelerometer, gyroscope
Battery Capacity 1350 mAh
Dimension 2.6 x 2.2 x 2.4" (66.7 x 56.2 x 60 mm)
Weight 5.4 oz (153 g)
Packaging Info
Package Weight 1.0 lb
Box Dimensions (LxWxH) 6.2 x 3.8 x 3.7"
Retail Price £349

Personal review
The Gear 360 camera is a well made product, with stylish aesthetics, a sturdy construction and indeed easy on the eye. Setting it up is a breeze, quite straight-forward even without reading the instructions lol! (even though I always read first)

The fun part began after connecting it to my wife's galaxy 6 edge. Controlling it, settings, and capturing videos and photos from the gear 360 app on the S6 edge was much fun and downright easy. 

It was not immediately clear to me how one can convert those nice photos and videos to be viewed as 360 videos anywhere else (i think that what they call stitching). However, a quick search on YouTube for the howto videos, uncovered a wealth of information on how to do this. Most videos were talking about using the gear 360 desktop software called "ActionDirector", but I wanted to avoid anything that takes me time and suck the fun away from the experience, so I went with easy, fast and simple tricks that you can do on the phone to stitch the videos. YouTube has plenty of videos to show you how. 

After my initial testing, I came round to install the action director. I quickly learnt tricks of dealing with the PC software that allowed me to quickly use stitched up photos and videos without having to publish them in "ActionDirector". See more on ActionDirector down below in this blog. 

One thing I quickly learnt about taking photos with this gadget was that, if there is a single light source, one has to make sure that the light source is exposed equally to both lenses, like pointing the "nose" of the camera to the light source instead of pointing just one lens to that light source. this makes the stitched photos transition, seamless. 

Battery and USB ports door 

The camera is IP53 certified and has got rubber-sealed door to the ports to keep them water tight. It may not say its water proof but I assume it should handle light showers, and splashes without any issues. 

You can use the small display at the top of the camera for basic settings without the need to connect to the phone. This means that the camera can effectively be used even without a Samsung phone. Small LEDs above each lens indicate which lens is in use, and will be flashing when the camera is in use. You can configure to use either single lens, if needed.

Things to note!
Battery life is not very impressive on this little thing, it died on me midway through my fun when I was away exploring the seaside. Good thing is that the battery is removable so one can carry extra batteries if they want to record videos all day long. 

File sizes are humongous for recorded 360 videos, if you are recording for anything more than 15 minutes. Stitching these can take some time, but if you are like me, record during day, process overnight, then you should be fine. 

The other thing that bothers me is I am not very impressed by the image quality esp video. It could be I need specific settings (currently set at 3840x1920 for video and 30M for photo)

This camera is only compatible with a handful of high-end Samsung smartphones. This can be frustrating for loads of people who own iPhones/iPads, LG, HTC and Google nexus high end smartphones.

Gear 360 in action
I will not bore anyone with my descriptions of how to set this thing up or other nitty gritties, of which the professionals have already published on YouTube. My personal opinion is that this little device is a game changer. It will be hard to imagine a time when photos only used to expose a small angle around the subject, leaving the viewer’s imagination to wonder what else was happening beside or in front of the subject.

Weston-super-Mare during the night (stitched image)

Sovereign Shopping Mall, Weston-super-Mare

Bristol atop Trenchard car park

I Know one can capture very professional looking photos by setting the camera on a big tripod, proper light setting, etc. but these photos where captured while walking, holding the camera in one hand, by its little tripod, but they still look awesome. Obviously my had features in the images because no care was taken to hide them etc. This serves to demonstrate how simple and easy it is to operate the camera, and the perfect auto-stitching that is done by the software.

Action Director
The desktop software to manage and process the Gear 360 files, called the action director, is quite a large piece of software which should take up more than 500MB of your hard-drive. A setting that I found very important for in the software is the "Automatic angle compensation" for 360 content. This can be set by checking (or ticking) the checkbox as show in the picture below.

Another trick that can be helpful, came from noticing that if you import the Gear 360 files into Action Director, it starts the stitching of the files automatically. You can import the file by doing "Files -> Import -> Media Folder". After selecting the folder which contains your files, all the files in there will start stitching soon after the import is finished. Each and every file imported, will show the percentage or status of the stitching process. The ones with a 0% are those that have not started stitching and large video files will take time to finish. All this while, there is no action needed and when stitching is finished, the stitched files are found in the folder as configured under "File" in Preferences (see pictures below)

Its best to configure the folder where you want to store the processed files before you start importing files into Action director, the default location is not an intuitive path, so one may want to change that.
ActionDirector Desktop software


Click on the gear to open Preferences
Automating Angle correction
Setting the import and export folders

The above processes describe the stitching that is done in ActionDirector, but Action director is provided as an editing tool, so if one want to cut clips, join them and making a longer single video from different files, that can be accomplished by dragging the files to the area indicated, and they would need to "publish" the resulting file. Someone mentioned that this processing takes a long time, so I have not attempted it. I believe that will probably be necessary only to professionals working on specific projects.

ActionDirector is somewhat disappointing because there is no way to select where you want the camera to be facing when the video starts playing. One may want to start the video facing upwards, backwards or front facing the direction of motion, but there is no way to set this in ActionDirector.

Below are raw unedited YouTube 360 videos taken on a windy day at dusk

Tiny Planets with Samsung Gear 360
Making tiny planets photos from 360 images has been a very popular trick on social media. There has been Instagram marketers who have been constantly proposing use of such pictures simply to draw large number of followers. It is not difficult to see why most people can be drawn to tiny planet photos, they have particular charm, exoticism and also offers a new perspective to photography.
making Tiny planet images from your 360 photos is easy, you simply need to have the relevant app on your phone. i will stick to phone apps for this, because most people use their phones for social media, and also because its easier and quick to do on the phone, than having to download, install and configure desktop software.
On a Samsung phone, you may consider the free apps like the Tiny planet -Globe; there are other gazillion apps from Google Play, if you follow the related apps, and you may find the one with the features that you like the most.
On the iPhone, i have been using RollWorld which is one of the quick and simplest apps to use, with integration to all social networks so that you can share the photos immediately, within the app.
Bristol atop Trenchard Car Park

The VR camera market's already had the LG360 and a more professional Kodak PixPro SP360 camera. Both the Gear 360 and the Kodak PixPro are 4K, the Gear 360 has got an edge because of its size, its much more compact, with both lenses on the single camera. It is also fully controllable from a smartphone. Ricoh has got a very good 360 camera, the Richoh Theta S retailing around £299 with a very small gap between the 2 lenses which makes the stitching perfect even at short distances, but its not 4k. The video quality is awful. Nikon also released the Nikon KeyMission 360, which is 4K and action proof. Its priced the same as the Gear 360. However, it is quite chunky, which makes the stitching awful. Also its software is horrendous.


The samsung Gear360 could be that VR camera that takes 360 capturing to the masses. The design is more than beautiful, its easy to use and does not break the bank. I suspect that Samsung will open this little device to other smartphones, and when that happens, this will easily be the most lovable, portable 360 camera. Currently, its a 4 star for me.

Other potential uses of 360 cameras.
Since one can wear a VR headset and be able to play 360 videos on a smartphone, it is easy to realise that one can actually move around (wearing the VR headset) following the visual information on the screen. This is equivalent to a “Virtual Tour” of a place. Galleries, shops and other places of interest can provide virtual tours to their customers, who in turn can browse, and explore the remote places as if they are there, using the 360 videos/photos.

It is also not hard to imagine that the next movies to come from Hollywood would incorporate VR to some extent. We will probably see a merging of the video game industry and movie industry. We will be able to take part in movies and determine how the story progresses, taking advantages of the many diverging story lines that would have been incorporated into the movie. 

360 cameras can become mainstream in surveillance and security applications. Instead of swivelling CCTV cameras, 360 cameras can provide that all-around imagery without having to deploy swivel cameras. Similar dashboard 360 cameras that capture the road ahead, the driver, the side roads and the road behind, can be very lucrative if one wants to capture everything happening, like in a pile-up accident, you can study what actually happens in all the 360 angles.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Amazon's Alexa - smart home voice assistant

Alexa has been with us for some time now. I have been able to play around with it. I currently have 2 Amazon Echo Dots.

According to Wikipedia "Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon.com's Lab126, made popular by the Echo. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audio books, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. Alexa can also control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.[2] Most devices with Alexa allow users to activate the device using a wake-word (such as Echo), other devices require you to push a button in order to activate listening-mode. Currently, interaction and communication with Alexa is only available in English and German."
I hope that statement give a quick glance at what this device is really about, and whether it might be for you.

There are other voice assistance on the market and the main competitors to Alexa are the Google Home Assistant and Apple's HomeKit.

Amazon Echo (Taller) and Echo Dot (smaller)
Gooogle Assistant

Apple Homekit
The following tables gives a summary of  current devices and systems which are compatible to each of the 3 offerings. The tables are written in the format of the "Smart Home Scoreboard for  CES2017" from which can be found at https://www.cnet.com/news/a-smart-home-scoreboard-for-ces-2017/
Tables in that link are continuously updated everyday, so the information here is a snapshot of information on that link.

Compelling smart device compartibility
Amazon Alexa
Apple HomeKit
Google Assistant
Belkin WeMo Dimmer
Chamberlain Smart Garage Hub
Belkin WeMo Dimmer
Whirlpool appliances
Leviton Decora light switches
Dish Hopper DVR
Honeywell Lyric Home Security and Control System
Chrysler 300
Element 4K TV

Nvidia Shield TV
LG Smart Instaview Refrigerator

Nvidia Spot
Ford Sync3

Mattel Aristotle by Nabi child's smart speaker

Hydrao smart showerheads

Samsung SmartThings kit

LightwaveRF Dimmaers and sockers

Compatible systems which are “Not bad”
Amazon Alexa
Apple HomeKit
Google Assistant
Samsung Powerbot VR7000 robot vacuum
Sylvania Multicolor smart bulb
Belkin WeMo Mini smart plug
WeMo Mini smart plug
Kwikset Premis smart lock
Coway Airmega air purifier
Omaker Wow speaker
Lifx Plus smart bulb
Switchmate Bright smart switch
Lenovo Smart Assistant speaker
ConnectSense Sensors
Switchmate Power smart plug smart switch
C by GE Lamp
Fibaro sensors
Sensory Voice Genie
Coway Airmega air purifier
First Alera Onelink Environment Monitor

First Alera Onelink environment monitor
Netatmo Smart Smoke Alarm

Somfy One security camera
Withings Home Plus WiFi cam

C-Way Memoo child's smart speaker
Carrier Cor smart thermostats

Switchmate Bright smart switch
D-Link Omna 180 Cam HD

Switchmate Power smart plug smart switch
Sensory Voice Genie

Hubble Hugo camera
Yale Real Living Assure Locks

Carrier Cor smart thermostats
Yale NexTouch Wireless Locks

Huawei Mate 9 phone
Incipio CommandKit WiFi Smart Wall Switch

Incipio CommandKit WiFi Light Switch

Incipio Command Kit Smart PowerStrip

Cambridge Nightengale

ADT Pulse

Sensory Voice Genie

Onkyo VC-FLX1

Mayfield Robotics Kuri

Amazon Alexa
Apple HomeKit
Google Assistant
iDevices Instant Switch
iDevices Instant Switch

LG Hub Robot

Ubtech Robots Lynx


What you can do with Alexa?
The following is an example list of things that you can say or ask Alexa.
"Alexa, whats my day like tomorrow?"
"Alexa, tell Lizzy a bedtime story"
"Alexa, tell me a joke"
"Alexa, play Christmas music"
"Alexa, who is Michael Jackson?"
"Alexa, wake me up at 7 in the morning"
"Alexa, ask Skyscanner for a flight to New York"
"Alexa, ask The Telegraph for the top stories"
"Alexa, how's my commute?"
"Alexa, shuffle my Favourites playlist"
"Alexa, turn it up"
"Alexa, will it rain tomorrow?"
"Alexa, read my audiobook"
"Alexa, what's on my calendar today?"
"Alexa, what's the weather in London?"
"Alexa, play Taylor Swift from Amazon Music"
"Alexa, turn on the coffee machine"
"Alexa, turn on all the lights"
"Alexa, switch on main bedroom lights"
"Alexa, set the master bedroom to 20 degrees"
"Alexa, what's in the news?"
"Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride"
"Alexa, open Just Eat and ask for my last order"
"Alexa, ask Jamie Oliver for a recipe"

My setup
I have 2 Echo dots, One in the living room and the other one in my bedroom. I can use the one in the living room if I am in the Kitchen, provided there is not too much noise (like loud music playing), but it works all the time.

To be able to ask Alexa the above question and get expected answers, one need to activate the relevant "skills". Skills are software intelligence that recognises the context and subject of the questions, and know how and where to fetch the data to be able to respond to the pondered question. Say if you have your own product that you want to be compatible with Alexa, you can program a little piece of  software specifying the questions that people should ask, and then code the necessary response of your device, in form of actions (e.g. movements if its a mechatronic device, or database fetches, is its data requests)

I use most of the default skills that come enabled with Alexa, and I have activated a few more. I have the SmartThings and LightwaveRF smarthome kits (see previous posts). I connected and activated these skills in my Alexa, so I am able to do the following;
 - Switch on/off or dim lights (e.g. "Alexa set living room lights to 20 percent")
 - Switch on/off electrical sockets (thus controlling devices connected to those sockets)
 - Switch on/off heating

LightwaverRF and SmartThings Skills

The above systems are the key to the success of Alexa in my house. My visitors are always in awe of how I control devices and lights in my house by just using my voice.
At the moment no other home assistant is compatible with LightwaveRF system, so Alexa is ahead of the game at the moment.

If you have any interesting tricks, skills and features that you want to share or discuss, please leave a comment.