Facebook Unveils Two New VR Cameras With ‘Six Degrees of Freedom’

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Facebook believes that video is the future. Not just any video, but immersive 360-degree video that approaches virtual reality. Of course, creating such video requires a very different breed of camera. So, a team of Facebook engineers, led by a camera guru name Brian Cabral, is hoping to bootstrap a much larger market for these extravagant devices. This morning, at Facebook’s annual developer conference in Northern California, Cabral and team unveiled blueprints for two new cameras designed to capture spherical video with extreme fidelity.

One of these orb-shaped devices grabs video through 24 individual lenses. The other, simpler and cheaper to build, spans six. And both shoot with “six degrees of freedom,” moving forward and back, up and down, right and left, and across three other perpendicular axes. This means they can capture a more complete and more realistic image than most cameras on the market, according to Johannes Saam, a senior creative developer at Framestore, a movie effects house that tested early versions of these devices. “If you put a headset on, the presence you feel from these images is way, way, way greater,” he says.

Facebook’s immediate aim is to provide professional filmmakers with the tools needed to shoot monoscopic 360-degree video for smartphones, laptops, and PCs as well as the stereoscopic 3-D video that gets shuttled into VR headsets like the Samsung Gear. But Cabral and company are looking much further head: ultimately, so much of that video will appear on Facebook. “The idea is to bring people closer together through rich and immersive stories we can share with our families and friends,” Cabral says, nodding at the company’s oft-stated mission to “connect the world.”

It should be said, however, that high-end advertisers are already interested in this new breed of video. In other words, Facebook may also expect these new cameras to bolster its bottom line.

The company first revealed its 360-degree camera ambitions a year ago, and it open sourced its initial design in July, freely sharing the blueprints and software with the world at large. The hope was that others would riff on the designs, and small companies like RevergeVR and ImagineVision did just that. By introducing two new designs, Facebook aims to expand the market even more.

This time around, though, the company won’t open source the designs. It will license the blueprints directly to individual camera makers, who will then sell commercial versions of these devices. Cabral says these partners requested this arrangement because “they want a richer, established ecosystem, where they can buy pieces and build their own products out of those pieces”—because professionals “just want to buy stuff.” But there may be other reasons. Some partners could want exclusive hardware. Or maybe Facebook wants a revenue stream to finance all the engineering that goes into its cameras. But Cabral declined to discuss the economics of it all.

In any event, both cameras are far more compact than the 17-lens camera Facebook revealed last year. The 24-lens model is just a bit bigger than a soccer ball and the 6-lens device is a bit smaller. In both cases, by shrinking the cameras down and offering those six degrees of freedom, Facebook hopes to provide filmmakers with more agile hardware.

But Facebook is just one of many companies working to build this new market. Partnering with Google, GoPro sells the 16-lens Odyssey for around $15,000, while Nikon offers a wide range of devices, including the $60,000 Ozo. You can expect cameras base on Facebook’s 24-lens design to sell in a price range above the GoPro. The 6-lens model will likely be much cheaper, but still more expensive than consumer cameras like those sold by Ricoh and even professional devices like the one from Israeli startup Humaneyes.

Humaneyes general manager Jim Malcolm says his company has found an eager market among ad agencies, film production companies, and schools looking to use VR as a teaching tool. Although he calls Facebook’s original camera design “one of the best on the market,” he finds it far too complex. “There are too many things that can go wrong,” he says. This helps explain Facebook’s new approach.

Still, Facebook continues to update the design of its first camera, now called the Surround360 Open Edition, and it may offer other designs at the high-end as well. Cabral sees the two new designs—the Surround360 x24 and x6—as part of a much larger array of cameras. They may be small, but the ambitions behind them couldn’t be bigger.

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