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Lots of Companies You've Heard Of Are Making VR Cameras. Now Meet the Other Guys.

Crowdfunded startups are trying to preemptively corner the nascent consumer market for VR video.

Even in the nascent, unproven market for virtual reality content, there are already plenty of options for filming live-action VR videos.

On the high end, there are companies like Jaunt and Samsung, which are making fancy “bespoke” cameras, the Jaunt Neo and Samsung Beyond. Aiming a little bit more broadly is Google, which is targeting the mass market via a partnership with GoPro, which has independently indicated it sees VR as a big part of its future. Also upcoming, though not yet explained in much detail, is a VR camera from the light-field company Lytro, dubbed Project Teleport.

But forget all that for a second.

Powered by online crowdfunding campaigns, even more cameras for recording VR content are coming down the pike. What makes them different? Their makers are betting that the VR market will need a super-low-end solution.

“These other cameras like the Jaunt Neo or Google Jump are much larger, much more expensive rigs, intended more for broadcast and studio-grade productions,” said Sphericam founder Jeffrey Martin. “It’s impressive stuff, but it’s not consumer-level. It’s not really portable.”

 The Sphericam 2 with a Samsung Gear VR headset
The Sphericam 2 with a Samsung Gear VR headset

Sphericam, which is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign but has already met its $150,000 goal, hopes to release a 360-degree camera by the end of this year that will retail for $1,500.

$1,500?! That may sound like a lot to you or me, but it’s decidedly cheap in camera land — especially for VR, which requires investing in several cameras that are shooting simultaneously, so that the eventual viewer can look anywhere in a scene.

(Google and GoPro haven’t officially released a price for their first camera, but it uses 16 GoPro Hero 4 cameras, which would cost about $8,000 if bought individually.)

Also funded through Kickstarter is Bublcam, which is just starting to ship the first units of a similarly portable VR camera that costs only $800. The company had to delay its initial shipments to Kickstarter backers, CEO Sean Ramsay said, because dropping earlier prototypes in a bag tended to knock off the alignment of the multiple cameras.

“If it’s off by like a millimeter, [the viewer] will notice distortion,” Ramsay said of the ultimate stitched-together video image. “The stitch right off the bat is never going to be perfect, especially with video.”

As a result, the company has invested in creating “smart stitch” software that is said to automatically correct slight misalignments of the cameras automatically in the cloud. Sphericam, meanwhile, stitches together the video on its own hardware, or at a higher video quality when the camera is plugged into a PC.

Ramsay volunteered that the Bublcam’s video quality won’t be as good as an array of GoPros — but claimed his company’s approach was the “fastest and easiest” for quick-and-dirty shooting out in the world. After it ships its first batch of cameras, he added, the company might even make a VR headset of its own.

“The way we see VR is, there’s upstream and downstream,” Ramsay said. “Downstream is high-end production pieces on tech like Oculus. Upstream is using a Bublcam, creating your own user-generated content and getting it onto a mobile phone headset to view that content instantly. We wouldn’t be building the most compelling VR headset, but it’d be the best for viewing content.”

Sphericam, meanwhile, hopes to release two or three cameras within the next year, Martin said, both to match the increasing resolution of new VR headsets and address early customer feedback — for example, making the camera more light-sensitive for recording in the dark. Also on the to-do list: Making future versions of its VR hardware more rugged and real-world-proof.

“I would like to be able to throw it out of a third-story window,” he said. “But we might have to wait a little for that.”

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