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8K video gives virtual reality the full picture for mainstream use

Reg man gets his hands on Samsung's only-in-Korea Gear 360 VR cam

Over the last six months, 360-degree videos have become A Thing. Google added support in YouTube, Facebook followed, and now we see a cavalcade of announcements from device manufacturers, all wanting a slice of the next revolution in photography.

It’s easy to understand why: immersive video provides a feeling of ‘being there’ that’s quite different from the shot-through-a-window standard of existing videography. If you use a Google Cardboard, GearVR or a higher-end VR rig, you can even put your head inside these immersive videos, for that extra-compelling touch of verisimilitude.

At the end of December I’d bought myself a Ricoh Theta S, at $350 (US) cheap enough to qualify as the first of the ‘consumer’ immersive video cameras. It shoots very nice still photos at 4K resolution, and records full-motion immersive video at full HD (1080p) - no small feat for such a compact device.

That’s great - until you attempt to view that footage through a VR headset. 1080p may seem like a very high resolution when you’re looking at it on a high-def telly that optimally fills about 35 degrees of your field of view. But your total field of view is over ten times that - three hundred and sixty degrees - so when you stretch that out in both directions (width and height) over an entire sphere, a high resolution image becomes very sparse and grainy.

Again, the Ricoh Theta S is a consumer product, so this inherent limitation isn’t a show-stopper. Yet UHD, with 4x the pixels - over eight million - would look a lot better: tighter and clearer.

A few weeks ago a friend gifted me a brand-new and as-yet-unreleased-except-in-Korea Samsung Gear 360 immersive camera. Samsung’s first entry into the field of immersive photography, the Gear 360 runs to roughly the same shape and density as a cricket ball. With its opposing cameras and a few cute buttons, Gear 360 looks more like a surveillance droid from The Empire Strikes Back than a video camera.

But it shoots video in 4k. And the difference between HD and UHD in immersive video is the difference between night and day. Things that look vague and indistinct in HD resolve into sharp and clear images in UHD. Watch the video from inside a VR headset like Samsung’s GearVR and you really do feel as though you’re inside the action.

As soon as I watched my first video shot on Gear 360 I knew immediately that the future of television I’d been writing about in this column over the last year had finally arrived. This is going to be the future for news reporting, for documentary, for sports broadcasting - and, occasional, even for drama. The feeling of ‘being there’, on the 50 yard-line, or center court, or even at the wicket - all of that will be a bog-standard part of the broadcasting experience within a few years. That much was immediately clear.

Not only can Gear 360 shoot 4K video, it can capture immersive photographs with a mind-blowing 8k resolution - 7776x3888 pixels! Those dimensions begin to match the visual density of a VR headset, so these images should look pretty much as good as the current generation of headsets would allow.

Fantastic, I thought. Now, all I need to do is turn the Gear 360’s time-lapse photography mode, and I could craft a full-motion 8K immersive video - taking the sequence of photographs and editing them into a single timeline. That would be incredible - the limits of the technology!

(Side note: No broadband with less than 100 Mbps of bandwidth could possibly cope with an 8K immersive transmission into the home. Australia’s NBN is a failed project, and this is the hill it died upon.)

Alas, although Gear 360 has a time-lapse mode for 4k video capture, it has no such mode for still photos. Either I’d have to do the capture by hand - ugh - or, perhaps I could write some code that could do this for me?

I remembered that even before I received my Ricoh Theta S I’d stumbled onto Ricoh’s extensive technical documentation for the device, including a full REST API - I could have written a Python program to do this timelapse photography for a Ricoh Theta S.

There’s no similar documentation for Gear 360. It’s early days, and perhaps Samsung is just waiting to open it all up, but I’ve got the impression that Samsung is trying to lock all of its Galaxy and Gear users into a tight ecosystem that admits no others - and which thwarts any attempts to add value.

I’d like to code a modest Android app that would get my Gear 360 to snap ultra-ultra high resolution time lapse photos - but I can’t, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to. I have to rely on Samsung to provide that functionality - and if it’s something that perhaps only a few people like myself will need, they may never seen the need to provide this feature.

This is the way great products quickly turn into dead ends. When enough of the reasons for using a product get thwarted by market imperatives, you end up delivering something that’s poorly resolved, satisfying no one.

I’ve heard rumors that Ricoh will upgrade the Theta this year, to 4k capture and 8k still photos - just like Gear 360. And Ricoh already has an API. Maybe I just need to wait until a product comes along that’s open enough to deliver the whole picture.

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