VR & 360 Degree

Remember the 3D Camera? It’s Back

July 17, 2017

By Greg Scoblete

Do you remember the Fuji W3? How about Panasonic’s 3D1?

If you answered “no” you’re not alone. Earlier this decade, as 3D TVs had started their brief, ill-fated appearance on electronics store shelves, some adventurous camera makers introduced models that could create setereoscopic 3D stills and video. Like 3D TVs, these cameras never amounted to much.

But Google is attempting to resurrect 3D photography and filmmaking to complement a new approach to virtual reality called VR180. Google defines VR180 as a stereoscopic 3D image with a 180-degree field of view. To date, most VR cameras (think Ricoh’s Theta and the Nikon KeyMission) capture a 360-degree field of view but as a flat, two dimensional image. Google’s innovation is to trade away the completely spherical view to add greater dimensionality–and thus, greater realism, since a 3D image looks more realistic when viewing VR content in a headset.

YouTube has already been updated to support the new format and Google says it is working with Yi Technology, Lenovo and LG to build VR180-compatible cameras. They’ll also be certifying other cameras as VR180 capable. The first such product is from Z Cam. The LucidCam may also fit the bill as may the Vuze from Humaneyes (which we’re reviewing in the Sept. issue).

Given how poorly the first crop of 3D cameras fared in the market, it’s fair to ask whether Google’s VR180 initiative will suffer a similar fate. After all, the promise of virtual reality is that you’re surrounded by video and that the viewer can control where he or she looks. VR180 robs the viewer of that freedom. By narrowing the field of view, VR180 cameras are essentially the same 3D cameras that failed several years ago, only now with the trendy imprimatur of Google and YouTube and VR headsets in place of 3D glasses.

What’s more, Google has a notoriously flightly track record when it comes to products outside of its core business. In 2017, Google has bet big on VR–they offer cloud stitching and have been aggressively updating YouTube to keep pace with spherical image formats. But will this attention and enthusiasm last? Ask Google Reader fans.

On the plus side, Google’s VR180 may have excellent potential among professional filmmakers. One of the signature challenges of creating dramatic VR content is positioning the production crew. A 360-degree video leaves grips, audio engineers and related crew exposed to the camera. Narrowing the field of view from 360-degrees to 180-degrees gives those crew members and their gear a place to hide (just like in a traditional video production).

It also solves one of the central conundrums of VR storytelling–how to direct a viewer’s eye when they have an entire 360-degree sphere to observe. With only a 180-degree field of view, a viewer doesn’t have nearly as much space to let their eyes roam, empowering directors to, well, direct.

3D cameras that support the VR180 format won’t be ready until the end of this year so the real test for the format’s appeal won’t occur until 2018 at the earliest. Until then, filmmakers and photographers who produce and/or are interested in VR have something new to ponder.