The Two Big Questions Facing the Virtual Reality Camera Market

While the traditional digital still camera market continues its slow, smartphone-induced decline, a new camera category has reared its head: the 360-degree/VR camera.

2016 has served as a coming out party, of sorts, for 360-degree imaging as major brands such as Samsung, GoPro and Nikon threw their collective hats into the ring, alongside a host of smaller brands like Orah and 360fly. While momentum is clearly building around virtual reality, two major questions loom large for the cameras that create it.

  1. Is there really a market for user-generated 360-degree and virtual reality content?

Cameras like Samsung’s Gear 360, Ricoh’s Theta and Nikon’s KeyMission 360 are predicated on the belief that consumers will want to create their own immersive content and not just consume professional-grade fare. But 360-degree imaging isn’t quite point-and-shoot simple—at least, not yet. There’s still an element of post production, where multiple video streams need to be stitched together and output into a single, spherical whole. Even when this process is automated, it takes time and multiple steps beyond merely recording a video to accomplish.

Then there’s the question of sharing 360-degree content. Facebook and YouTube support 360 videos and companies like 360fly and Ricoh are attempting to build online communities around sharing immersive videos, but few people own Google Cardboard or other virtual reality viewers and the practice of viewing and sharing this content is still embryonic. Mass market adoption of 360-degree/VR video hinges on how easy it is to access and share this content.

  1. Will 3D make a comeback?

3D cameras briefly surfaced several years ago as a way to create user-generated content for 3D TVs. And, like the ill-fated 3D TV, 3D cameras and camcorders sold poorly and quickly disappeared from store shelves. But in the context of virtual reality video, 3D is not a gimmick. Indeed, stereoscopic image capture is vital to creating virtual reality with depth and dimensionality—for making the virtual seem realistic.

Most consumer 360-degree cameras launched to date capture a flat image, with no dimensionality. But a new breed of camera, represented by the likes of the Vuze camera coming in 2017 from HumanEyes, is different. It uses a pair of stereoscopic lenses on each side of its square body to record a 3D image, creating a 360-degree video that’s far more immersive. Since more cameras are being used, 3D VR solutions are also able to record more pixels and create a higher-resolution final video.

But while 3D VR is more realistic and of much higher quality, it’s also more computationally intensive to produce. The Vuze camera requires a PC to stitch and render the video into a single, 360-degree whole and that process occurs in real time, so one minute of recorded footage takes one minute to stitch and render (on Macs or older PCs with slow GPUs, it can take even longer). What’s more, this 3D VR video really shines in a VR headset with robust processing power (i.e. not inexpensive smartphone readers like Google Cardboard) and the number of consumers with those headsets, while growing, is still relatively small.

2017 will undoubtedly see more virtual reality camera introductions, but whether these products will take hold of the public’s imagination in the way that action cameras did is very far from clear.