Action cameras have the power to captivate: to turn anybody, not just professional surfers or sponsored adrenaline junkies, into creators of high-quality, visceral entertainment. People have attached them to the wings of fighter jets, flown with them to space and the oceans’ depths, and they’ve been locked in dishwashers and strapped to eagles (and dogs). If you can imagine it, action cameras have been there to capture it all.
But by early 2016, traditional action cameras had lost some of their luster. The novelty wore off, smartphones with waterproof/shockproof cases took over, and innovation in the field beckoned. And so, quickly, action cameras were then aimed in a totally new direction, one that smartphones and traditional cameras can’t follow: they’re now shooting in 360 degrees.
There are three real markets for 360-degree cameras. Professional-quality “made-for-VR” cameras, like the Jaunt One, Nokia Ozo and the Lytro Immerge, aren’t meant for the mass market. The Lytro, for one, costs nearly as much as a Tesla Model S. Then there are consumer-level, no-frills 360 cameras that just capture 360 footage, like the Ricoh Theta and LG 360 CAM (used by people capturing all the mayhem of Times Square or Coachella), cameras good for everyday users doing “normal” things — not action-based. And that leads to the third category, the dedicated 360 action cameras, rugged enough to take on any adventure. This is what will replace your GoPro Hero4.
Peter Adderton, CEO of 360fly, remembers the first time he used a 360-degree action camera, while mountain biking with a friend. “I saw him. I saw him crash and I could spin around and see my reaction,” Adderton said. “It was at that point that I had this come-to-Jesus moment: ‘If you can capture everything, why wouldn’t you?'” 360fly released the 360fly 4K, the second generation of their original 360fly HD, in 2016. The company, founded by several scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab, claims it’s the world’s only single-lens 360 action camera that shoots in 4K. (For comparison, the recently released Samsung Gear 360, which shoots in just under 4K, is a dual-lens action camera.)
One advantage of a single-lens system, like the 360fly 4K, is that they make it significantly easier to share footage. If you’ve practiced with the 360fly 4K, you can shoot, edit and share footage in under 60 seconds. The single-lens system provides a smaller overall image size and there’s no artificial stitching. The one downside: it doesn’t capture true 360-degree footage. It can capture 360 degrees horizontally, but only 240 degrees of vertical field of view (the camera itself obscures the remaining 120 degrees).
Inside the 360fly 4K
Number of Cameras: One
360° Camera Resolution: 2880 x 2800
Field of View: 240 degrees
Battery: 1780 mAh
Weight: 0.38 pounds
Sensors: Accelerometer, E-Compass, Non-Assisted GPS, Gyroscope
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Windows
Buy Now: $500
With a dual-lens system, the camera software must stitch two images together. However, it’s mathematically impossible to align them perfectly. The multiple-camera system can capture a wider field of view, 360 degrees horizontally and vertically — but the stitching makes the final footage look a bit wonky. Also, file sizes with multiple-camera systems tends to be larger. Each video or photo takes longer to process and stitch, so sharing is less immediate. “If you start looking at multiple lenses, that’s when you see a degradation of quality, and you start to see limitations in sharing,” Adderton added, justifying why 360fly have not brought a dual-lens action camera to market.
However, shifting media trends have made these technical distinctions into non-issues. “When you look at the way we consume content today, it’s really very quick,” said Adderton. “People aren’t watching two- to three-minute videos.” The videos people put up on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are short — and they’re compact files. So the fact that 4K action cameras need larger files, to accommodate 4K footage, has become less relevant as video sizes on social media shrink overall. Adderton sees the practice of shooting, editing and sharing long videos changing thanks to the increasingly social media-driven mentality with which people are approaching action cameras. “The usage of 360 has changed, and I think that’s because we made it so easy to edit, send and share on the spot. You know that you’re not going to have to wait to download that file.”
Another difference between the 360fly 4K and the Samsung Gear 360 is their durability. While both are action cameras, the Gear 360 isn’t waterproof; it’s rated IP53. Meanwhile, the 360fly 4K can be stuck on the bottom of a pool and still operate normally. Adderton calls it a “true action camera,” meant to take a pounding. “We just did the Isle of Man TT, where we took the camera to 200 mph, with all that vibration,” said Adderton. “This camera has been thrown out of an airplane, it’s been in big wave surf, it’s been on motor bikes — this thing has been through absolutely everything you can think of, and it’s survived.”
Inside the Samsung Gear 360
Number of Cameras: Two
360° Camera Resolution: 3840 x 1920
Field of View: 360 degrees
Durability: IP53 splash and dust resistance
Battery: 1350 mAh
Memory: Up to 200GB
Weight: 0.3 pounds
Sensors: Accelerometer, Gyroscope
Compatibility: Samsung’s Galaxy line
Buy Now: $350
The added ruggedness of the 360fly 4K comes with some tradeoffs. There’s no display, like with the Gear 360, so you can’t change between settings and modes on the camera — everything is done in the app. Also, the SD memory card in the Gear 360 can be removed from the camera and inserted directly into a laptop. It’s a plus for photographers who are used to uploading files “the old-fashion way.” The 360fly 4K relies on wi-fi. It should be known that both 360 action cameras can also shoot in POV, as a traditional action camera would; you can turn one of the Gear 360’s lens off, and the 360fly 4K has a POV setting.
Price-wise, both are reasonable. The 360fly 4K costs as much as the current GoPro Hero4 Black ($500), while the Samsung Gear 360 is only $350 (though its availability is still limited in the US). With the 360fly 4K, users are paying extra for its ruggedness and editing software, along with superior sharing functionality. (As a bonus, the editing suite allows you to choose from 100 songs to embed with your videos — royalty-free.) The 360fly 4K also excels in cross-platform compatibility; it works with over two dozen devices across iOS and Android, as well as Windows and Apple laptops, whereas the Samsung Gear 360 only works with Samsung Galaxy smartphones — leaving owners of the iPhone, the most popular smartphone in the US, stranded.
Adderton admittedly has a semi-controversial view on VR, believing that headsets like the Oculus Rift will be sold to a very small market. “The true adoption of VR, in its purest form of being immersive content, is going to come from people who want to engage and capture their own content,” he claimed. There will be gamers, of course, but most people aren’t going to spend $400 dollars to watch somebody else’s content or walk with dinosaurs for two minutes. “The adoption of VR and 360 is going to come from the camera, and not from the actual apparatus that plays it back,” Adderton said. “In order for the mass adoption to happen, you’re going to need to see the success of companies like ours in order to really and truly make that thing grow.”