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In Google's Vision of Virtual Reality, Where Does Jaunt Fit?

Maybe at the high end of VR video, which Google seems to be avoiding (at least for now).

Jaunt VR

Jaunt, a Palo Alto startup backed in part by Google Ventures, makes 360-degree cameras for filming in virtual reality and the software to stitch VR video together.

Google, a multinational tech company that you’ve probably heard of, is about to start distributing 360-degree cameras for filming in virtual reality, by way of a partnership with GoPro. And it’s also making its own software, dubbed Assembler, to stitch VR video together.

So why is Google investing in a company that appears to compete against it?

The launch of Jaunt’s new high-end camera, announced today, clears up the confusion. Jaunt is occupying the high end of VR movies, leaving Google to stake out the mass market’s taste for smaller-budget fare.

The camera is codenamed Neo, a departure from previous models that were just called “prototype one,” “prototype two” and so on. CTO Arthur van Hoff called it a “bespoke” device (yes, really — paging Jony Ive …).

“It’s the first camera we’ve designed from the ground up for 360-degree content,” van Hoff said. “It’s made for putting on a stage, hitting record and having a reliable experience.”

Jaunt VR

Neo will be manufactured in small numbers, and starting in August will be rolled out to Jaunt’s clients and partners, which in the past have included the North Face, Paul McCartney and Elle magazine. The company isn’t sharing how much the new camera costs, and won’t be selling it to non-partners.

Jaunt’s Neo uses custom lenses and was made to work seamlessly with its video-stitching technology, hardware engineering director Koji Gardiner said.

Neo is aiming to resolve issues unique to VR producers that traditional filmmakers don’t have to worry about, like capturing video in low-light conditions. External lighting can be more of a problem for VR than it is in traditional filmmaking. If video viewers turn and see a crew behind the once-controllable fourth wall, they might lose their sense of “presence” in a scene.

Neo also supports time-lapse and high frame-rate capture, the latter of which will be good for sports and other action sequences. Both it and Google’s camera, dubbed Google Jump, use 3-D computational light field techniques to achieve better image quality.

Whereas Jaunt has distributed its videos through apps on digital stores like Google Play and Oculus Share, Google plans to use YouTube for both partnerships and distribution. Some of its top YouTubers are set to receive cameras from the company next month, and the dominant online video site already supports playback of VR-ready 360-degree video.

Those differences would suggest that the two companies are pursuing different audiences with different content. But Jaunt can’t completely rest easy, because Google says it’s only getting started.

“We have [VR] ambitions, obviously, far beyond Cardboard,” said Clay Bavor, a Google VP on Android who leads up the company’s VR efforts, in a recent interview with Re/code. “And Jump is one of the first big, deep technical investments. It’s the first part of the iceberg … to come above the ocean.”

It seems unlikely that the make-do camera array Google is starting out with, which holds off-the-shelf GoPros, will be its last word in a market accustomed to paying top dollar for newer and better camera technology.

Bavor added that Jaunt had been “more focused on the studio aspects,” producing some of the best content for Cardboard. And just recently, the two companies joined hands in a lovingly vague press release.

“We’re going to be working with Google on high-end content production,” van Hoff explained. “In some cases, we may use their camera and in some cases, we may use our camera. But it’s about the quality of content. We’re about quality, they’re about quantity.”

“They need content, we need content,” he said. “Everybody needs content.”

Additional reporting by Mark Bergen.

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