Critical Impact on a Viewer’s Virtual Reality Experience: 360 2D Vs. 3D Cameras

How the Differences in Building 360 2D Vs. 3D Cameras Will Shape VR Adoption?

The definition of Virtual Reality has been evolving over the last couple years. While we are all clear about what a VR headset is and what it needs to do, people often are confused about what VR cameras should be able to do. Is it 360° or 3D or both? There is clearly a hype around 360° 2D consumer cameras right now, but the wave of 3D cameras is not far behind. However, to bring more clarity around why 3D is still behind, this article should explain some of the differences and especially challenges which make building 3D cameras much more difficult than a 360° 2D camera.

2D vs. 3D 360°: More than Just a Couple Lenses

First of all, the amount of camera modules and lenses needed to do 2D 360° is at a minimum two and can go up to four, but 3D needs way more than that. If you imagine that capturing 3D in one direction can only happen with at least two lenses – as we reproduce what a human eye can do in stereo – then you will understand that the most you can achieve in 3D with two wide angle lenses is 180° through and with six lenses is 360°. It is possible to create 360° 3D with four lenses, two facing one direction and two facing the opposite, but then you are sacrificing the sides which will be only in 2D. Many 3D cameras use eight or more lenses to create 360° 3D, because the more lenses you use the better resolution you can achieve with stitching.

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A 360 3D camera system

 

Straightforward Vs. Additional Alignment: Manufacturing 2D and 3D

Second, 360° 2D cameras have a more straightforward manufacturing process than any 3D camera for Virtual Reality. In the assembly, two lenses are mounted on sensors back to back, and the key step is the mechanical calibration to precisely align them. However, 3D VR cameras have to go through the same step in manufacturing, but then add an additional software calibration process which guarantees a perfect 3D experience. Every single 3D camera has to go through that process in order to generate 3D data necessary for playback.

 

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A LucidCam production unit

 

Stabilizing Multiple Points: Image Processing in the 2D vs. 3D

Finally, image processing needs for 3D cameras are much higher than for 360° 2D cameras because of stabilization, high dynamic range and calibration. For 360° 2D, you need the stitching software to combine the two lenses, and that happens mostly in real-time. However, for 3D cameras, you need more than just stitching, since you always have two reference points which you need to consider instead of one like in 2D. That means when you stabilize 3D, you are not stabilizing one point, but multiple points in differently shaking images. It can create a huge challenge, as for a perfect 3D effect and depth, you would need to keep the reference points at the same distance. Another impact is on the high dynamic range between two lenses capturing with a slight offset.

Even though you are recording the same direction, the light might be different due to the offset of the lenses. Besides those two you have to also deal with calibration which we briefly discussed above, but not just in manufacturing. What happens when the camera falls on the floor and the lenses get misaligned?

Those are just a few reasons why building 3D cameras is so difficult and needs time to get right. The smallest error can cause a huge impact on the viewer, leaving behind an experience which keeps people away from ever adopting Virtual Reality. Therefore, ramping up 3D cameras have taken an incredibly long time compared to all the 2D 360° cameras in the market. All we can hope is that the computer vision technology for 3D keeps getting better and better over the next couple years to finally take true VR content to the next level.

 

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Calibration of 3D from two lenses is challenging

 

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Consumer Insights of 360 VR cameras

 

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360 VR Cameras landscape. Image courtesy of http://www.roadtovr.com

In the last couple of months, many Virtual Reality cameras have come to market which try to put content creation into the hands of consumers. However, sales of these VR cameras have been only moderate with the Ricoh Theta and Samsung 360 leading the pack. Because the unexceptional sales volume surprised us, we have collected the feedback to see what is holding down the pace of purchase.

Most consumers who bought a 360 VR camera mentioned that the big thrill in owning a VR camera  frequently faded after a few weeks, and after only using it a couple of times. This feedback was consistent and widespread and really surprised us because purchasing a VR camera is not only expensive but also requires time and effort to learn how to operate. Therefore we looked carefully at the user experience, storytelling and day-to-day integration to try to determine why consumers are not completely satisfied.

The first barrier is simply getting consumers ready to actually make a purchase. When consumers enter a retail store like Best Buy and walk past the unusual  ball-shaped camera devices, at first glance it does not quite resemble a camera at all, and it’s not very intuitive in terms of how to hold it and see what it captures. The biggest difference between a techie and consumer is the amount of effort he or she is willing to put in to learn a new technology. While a techie would spend hours researching and learning how to operate a 360 VR camera, the average consumer is more impatient and wants the device to directly function. Since the 360-degree camera capture experience is completely different from traditional digital cameras, there is just no obvious reference point for a consumer to know how to easily use it.

The second barrier to purchase or use is related to the 360 content itself which is very different from what consumers are used to — the 16:9 frame. With 360 degrees you pretty much capture everything, meaning you have no option other than to include things you want and things you do not want in the frame. This raises two more problems. First, consumers like presenting themselves from their best side and in the best light, but now they no longer can control that because it would take too much effort to make sure all 360 degrees look great. Second, consumers like telling a story by framing the perfect moment, and now they have to find other ways to direct the viewer’s attention. Given these challenges, it makes more sense that most 360 VR cameras are bought by professionals now. They either have the time and resources to stage 360 degrees or know the ins-and-outs of storytelling with sound and movements in 360 VR.

Lastly, portability and ease of carrying is a huge factor for consumers. Most of today’s pictures and videos are taken with smartphones because it fits into what you are already carrying like your phone in your pocket. However, 360-degree cameras are normally the size of a ball which often does not quite fit into your pocket and requires a bag or a mount in order to carry them around.

The only one which does fit is the Ricoh Theta which is almost the size of a smartphone, but still needs to be connected through wifi to a phone. The best integrated solution would be a 360-degree camera embedded into a smartphone, but since today we don’t want to buy thick or bulky phones, it would have a huge impact on the design of the smartphone.

360-degree Virtual Reality cameras are a great invention, but their value add compared to a standard panorama shot by a smartphone is small compared to the price you pay. We do not know if 360 VR will hit mass consumer adoption, but we know that professional videographers and content creators love capturing and developing commercial experiences with it. Therefore we believe that consumer adoption of 360-degree cameras will be way behind actual 360 content produced for commercialization.

Han Jin
Founder & CEO – Lucid VR
Check out Lucid Cam at http://www.lucidcam.com