Tuesday, 10 January 2017

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

Intro

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.
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In its packaging
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Samsung Gear 360 on its cute tripod
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The camera on its own
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The little tripod folded
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Slightly smaller than a tennis ball
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USB charging
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In the field
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Out of packaging

Specs
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
NFC
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.
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ActionDirector Desktop software


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Click on the gear to open Preferences
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Automating Angle correction
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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


Competition
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.


Verdict

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.

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