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Everyone and their mother is building a 360-degree camera

A tiny startup backed by CNET founder Halsey Minor is the latest to get into the act.

Halsey Minor, showing off a prototype of the 360-degree camera he says will jump-start the market for live virtual reality production
Reality Lab Networks

A year ago, those wanting to shoot content for virtual reality had few options.

Those on a budget could use a relatively low-resolution camera from Japan’s Ricoh while high-end crews often used a custom rig composed of multiple GoPro cameras.

But with VR all the rage these days, a host of companies big and small have rushed to fill the void.

Samsung and LG have both introduced basic 360-degree cameras for consumers, while Nokia, Jaunt and Lytro are taking aim at the professional market with models costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others have announced products or Kickstarter campaigns for products.

Among the latest to throw a hat in the ring is CNET* founder Halsey Minor. For the past 18 months, Minor has been building Live Planet, a VR capture system promising the moon and the stars to the professional crowd for a fraction of the cost of Nokia’s Ozo or the forthcoming device from Lytro.

Rather than sell a system composed of a camera and separate servers for stitching and rendering, Minor says his company, Reality Lab Networks, has created a camera that can sell for around $10,000 without a need for attached computers. (The company is selling the first 500 systems for half that price.)

The resulting output consists of two 4K-quality spheres without visible stitching that can be sent to all manner of virtual reality headsets. Live Planet will also operate a cloud server that can take content shot on its servers and prepare it for services such as YouTube VR, Facebook VR and Samsung VR, as well as for dedicated headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive.

Showing off a prototype camera at a posh loft in San Francisco’s Mission district, Minor said he was able to achieve all this by taking a fresh approach to virtual reality content capture and by doing most of the heavy computing work right on the camera rather than having to compress the data and send it to a server for stitching.

A rendering of the 16-camera Live Planet system that Reality Lab Networks aims to bring to market later this year
Reality Lab Networks

"I think we are going to make the VR industry real," Minor said in an interview, brushing off the notion that gaming and not live video will be what turns it into a mass market.

Minor then hands me a Samsung Gear VR headset, and indeed, I am able to see myself and the entire room around me, even switching between views from two of the prototype cameras. In the first demo, the content is shown in especially high resolution with a modest delay; using a lower-resolution stream, the content appears even faster, albeit with an initial fuzziness when one turns to a different part of the action.

"Nobody has ever seen themselves in livestreaming VR," Minor notes, adding that today only NextVR offers such a service, and it does it using a very expensive proprietary camera system. NextVR has been using its technology to broadcast live NBA games, soccer matches and concerts, recently announcing a multi-year deal with Live Nation.

Minor says most of what is going on today in virtual reality amounts to little more than expensive experiments.

"So much of the stuff, nobody is paying for it except for investors," he said. "It’s unsustainable to just spend huge amounts testing. At some point [you have to] build not just a company but a business model."

Minor’s company plans to start taking orders for the cameras on Friday and delivering them and launching its cloud service in the fourth quarter.

The move to sell cameras is something of a pivot for Minor, who earlier this year was talking about using his technology to build a virtual reality network, telling Fortune in January: "I don’t want to be a GoPro competitor, and I don’t think there’s a market there right now."

With the change, Minor says he now wants to enable thousands of content creators to get into virtual reality production.

Minor also has an audacious goal when it comes to the usability of the device he is building. He claims that within 15 minutes a content maker can be up and running with the camera rig, registered with Live Planet’s service and livestreaming their 360-degree content.

Over the past few days, Minor has been meeting with reporters as well as bigwigs in the content creation business, including reality TV producers, ad agencies and production companies.

Colin Dixon, chief analyst of nScreenMedia, said he walked away pretty darned impressed with what Minor showed, though he said delivering remains far from a slam dunk.

"He has already manufactured one camera," Dixon said. "He is familiar with issues and problems there. But can he deliver? It’s a great question."

* Disclosure: Recode’s Ina Fried spent a decade at CNET, though she only briefly overlapped with Minor during his final months as the company’s chairman in 2000.

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