Part One: Patrick goes to Google
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” — Orson Welles
It’s a sunny day at Google’s campus and I’m serpentining between giant statues of Android mascots. In my hand is a cigarette pack-sized camera with two lenses on it. My phone has two rear cameras so how is this any different? It uses two lenses to take photos and videos with a 180-degree field of view.
Hold that thought while I film myself inside the hole of a giant Android donut.
The camera and content it captures are part of a fairly new platform from Google called VR180. The idea is simple. VR allows a viewer to see in 360-degrees, but that is not always conducive for a focused experience. Limiting VR to a 180-degree environment allows artists to approach making content in a more traditional way — changing camera angles and perspectives.
“When I tell people who have created for VR before about VR180 they let out a sigh of relief,” said Ryan Cassidy, Product Manager, VR180. “They can go back to creating with a process they already know.”
VR180 is in its “chicken or the egg” phase. For people to watch VR180 content, someone needs to make it. Yet if no one watches VR180 content, then there’s little incentive to create it.
To move things forwardto create consumer friendly VR180 cameras. Qualcomm is also committed to VR180 and its Red Dragon platform could open up new possibilities for capturing photos and videos in 180 — think live or motion video stills like on the iPhone or Pixel.
I’m visiting Google to learn more about VR180 and the cameras that capture it. I’ve been running around the welcome center with the Lenovo Mirage which shoots photos and videos or can livestream in VR180 straight to YouTube via a smartphone.
The Mirage feels solid and well-built, but doesn’t have a viewfinder or a rear display which kind of makes sense because everything it captures has a 180-degree field of view. In fact, you have to be careful how you hold the camera because your fingers might unexpectedly end up on the edges of the frame. And nobody wants to see your giant fingers in a VR headset.
To take a picture I point the camera at my subject and press the shutter. There’s no need to move the camera in a sweeping motion like a phone capturing a panorama. This “blind” shooting experience reminds me of “shooting from the hip” with an old Russian Lomo film camera.
Hang on. I’m standing next to a giant ice cream sandwich and I need to take a picture of this massive Android cupcake.
The Mirage has 16GB of storage and accepts MicroSD cards, too. Once filled, you can take the SD cards out and put them directly into a Lenovo Mirage Solo headset to view. But you can also view things via bluetooth and WiFi through the VR180 app on a smartphone with iOS or Android. The app looks very similar to the one Google makes for its Clips camera. A future update, will bring basic editing tools to do things like trim clips lengths.
I trade in the Mirage to try another VR180 camera: The Yi Horizon. It’s closer in size to a deck of cards. Like the Mirage, it has stereoscopic lenses and can capture photos, videos or livestream to YouTube via a smartphone. Unlike the Mirage, the Horizon has a display on the back which can flip for selfies or vlogging. The shooting experience on the Horizon allowed me to be more experimental because I could see what I was doing.
I should note that the VR180 app can give you a live preview from either the Mirage or Horizon.
So after running around Google snapping VR180 pictures and videos, it’s time to look at them. Ideally, you’d view these videos and pictures on a VR headset — the experience of which reminds me of the View-Maser I had as a kid. You move your head around and can see all the details of a photo and really be absorbed in the subject.
“People are surprised by the photos. They’re really approachable,” said Cassidy of viewing VR180 photos in a headset. “The cool things about the photos is you get to linger in that moment — in a paused world.”
If you don’t have a headset, you can view photos and videos in the VR180 app, or in Google’s Photos app. To navigate around the frame of a photo or video, you simply move your phone.
Cassidy said that one of the upsides of VR180 content is the better resolution. Instead of spreading a 4K file across a 360-degree field, it’s only stretching across a 180-degree field.
The images I took on that bright sunny day look good with nice colors. Viewing them in VR made even the mundane tourist style snaps I took of Google’s welcome center feel immersive.
But the image quality of these photos and videos aren’t going to win any awards. The dynamic range is okay and details are soft. This doesn’t diminish my curiosity about cameras or the platform itself.
The Yi Horizon isn’t for sale yet but should be out later this year. The Mirage VR180 camera is available now and costs $299, £220, AU$395.
Part 2: Scott goes home
My 3D memory machine
I see my son, dancing a dance he calls The Floss. He’s doing his dance moves in the entry of my house. I see him smiling, and behind him, the TV, the stairs to my right. It’s all in VR, in 3D. Low-res, not always perfect. But it’s strange to see him there, as if he’s maybe real. I turn to my side, and the room comes to an end. This video clip is 180 degrees, not 360 degrees. And I took the shot just seconds before. Now I’m viewing it on Google Cardboard.
Google likens the Mirage Camera to having something that captures memory moments. A similar type of proposition was made for Google’s Clips camera, which came out earlier this year. Clips explores automatic photographs, while Mirage is, to me, more about capturing an immersive slice of a moment.
I set up Mirage Camera and used it for a day, pairing with an iPhone running Google’s pre-release VR180 app. The phone app syncs photos and videos down so you can see them, and they’re also synced with Google Photos. But the camera itself has no screen. You’re meant to trust the little thing, with its two fisheye lenses.
It’s easy to set up
I charged it up and started taking photos. Photos end up looking grainy at times, and videos can get choppy if you’re moving. And I have no idea what anything will look like until I sync the camera with my phone, or pull out the MicroSD card and stick it in a Mirage Solo VR headset I’m testing. But, it basically does three things: Take photos, take videos, and go live (which I haven’t tested yet). When I connect to the iPhone, the camera pairs via direct Wi-Fi to transfer photos.
Photos and videos don’t come out as crisply as your phone
I take a selfie on the walk home from work. It turns out pretty decently, but in 180-degree 3D it loses resolution. A photo taken in the office kitchen of a work colleague is a blur of arms. The camera’s not good in low light, and I feel like I’m making sacrifices versus a regular camera.
Still, the instant way the videos and photos can be played back is impressive. And when I show my wife or my son the videos on a phone or in Google Cardboard, they think it’s cool.
It’s easier to shoot in 180 vs 360
180-degree photos and videos are easier to frame, and still capture a bit of immersiveness. They’re also easier to view on a phone. The VR180 app can flatten the images and videos to be viewable normally, and you can look around by swiping a finger or by enabling phone-tilt to look around. It also swaps to a VR mode that works with Google Cardboard or Daydream View. I’m finding that, yeah, selfies are ok. And anything I aim at does enter the photo. But…
Watch out for your hands, and don’t spin the camera
I found it really hard to not have my fat fingers in shots. Selfies came with my thumbs in the corners. And also, when shooting videos, I realized that if I panned to another part of the room, my playback video would pan, too: If I didn’t keep moving my head to look where it was going, it would fade to black as the shot moved away from me. Which was weird. So… keep your 180-degree videos stable.
Perspective can be fun
I put the camera inside a foosball table, or on the floor, and it made the VR playback feel like I was in a land of giants.
What do I do with these 180-degree “memories?”
It really did feel like I was a little more in the spaces I was capturing, and that, for a few moments, I had virtually brought a bit of my life into VR.
But then what? Organizing and replaying these memories requires special apps. They’re not really the same as normal photos and videos. And it’s not easy to share them with others. VR180 and the Mirage Camera are interesting, but unless my phone could do this, I don’t know if I’d want it.
My family is amazed…and surprised
The next morning, I show my kids and wife what was shot, using my phone and Google Cardboard. The kids are wowed. “You even captured the stairs,” says my older son. My wife is a little bit disturbed. “It really is like that scene in Minority Report,” she says, remembering how Tom Cruise replays memories of his family. Like a magic life Viewmaster, the Mirage Camera and VR180 do have an impact. More than I even expected.