Most of the time, I don't live the kind of life that lends itself to being recorded in immersive 360-degree video. I don't fly fighter jets or do crazy adventure sports or really anything else that seems particularly worthy. But, IEEE Spectrum has been interested in experimenting with 360-degree video to see how it might help us bring you stories in a more creative way, so I brought one with me on a trip to the Galapagos Islands last month to see what I could learn.
There are a whole bunch of 360-degree cameras on the market right now, but I wanted something small and simple that produced high-quality visuals while also being rugged enough to handle sand and salt water. After doing a bunch of research, I went with the 360fly 4K, which was developed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon's robotics lab and features a totally original design that manages 360-degree videos with just one lens.
A quick word on the Galapagos, to help put these pictures and videos in context—the Galapagos are a group of volcanic islands about 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, arguably most famous for helping inspire Darwin to come up with the concept of natural selection. The islands are so isolated that the animals living on and around them haven't had a chance to develop a fear of humans, which in practice means that you can get extraordinarily close to a unique community of wild birds, reptiles, and sea mammals. You aren't allowed explore the Galapagos on your own; the only way to do it is in small groups on designated trails with experienced local guides, and all of these videos were recorded under their supervision. No animals were harmed, although some were frustrated that the 360fly was not edible.
Most 360-degree video cameras give you a spherical video: the camera uses two or more super wide lenses to see in every direction at once, and then stitches the video captured by each lens together to make a seamless video that records absolutely everything going on around you. Or, that's the idea: in practice, this rarely works as well as it should, and you get bizarre seams in the middle of your videos where software is trying to combine recordings from separate lenses.
360fly takes a different approach, using just one absurdly wide angle lens to record video that's only 360 degrees in one plane. In other words, if you set the camera on the ground, it can see all the way around itself with no problems but not completely underneath. Technically, this results in a 240-degree field of view in the vertical dimension, but 360fly figures that most of the time, you won't care about a blind spot under the camera. In exchange, you get a seamless 4K video (2880 pixels x 2880 lines) that doesn't need to be stitched.
Design and Construction
The 360fly 4K is a very distinctive matte black sphere 61 millimeters in diameter, covered in funky angle-y bits, and topped by an enormous lens. There's just one button that we'll talk about in a bit, but overall, it's very clean and satisfying to hold. The battery and storage are all locked up tight inside the camera, meaning that you can't swap either of them out. In fact, the camera must be placed on a dedicated magnetic dock to recharge or to connect directly to a computer. Annoying, yes, but there's a good reason for it: this is one impressively rugged camera.
Straight out of the box, the 360fly is waterproof to about 9 meters (30 feet), which is plenty deep enough for mildly aggressive snorkeling (although not proper scuba diving). According to the specs, it'll handle a 1.5-meter drop, and it shrugs off dust and sand with no problems. The lens looks like it might be vulnerable, but I didn't have any issues over several weeks of testing. The camera spent most of its time in an external mesh pocket on my backpack, without any sort of protection on the lens, and it survived being pecked by birds, bitten by baby sea lions, and sat on by a giant tortoise, as you'll see shortly. I'd wipe the lens off if it got dirty, and that's it.
I love how simple the 360fly 4K is. There is one button that turns the camera on, starts a recording, stops a recording, and turns the camera off. That button has a glowy bit that surrounds it, providing all the basic information you need about what the camera is doing by glowing or blinking in different colors. Whenever you push the button, the camera gently vibrates to let you know that the push has been acknowledged, and different vibration patterns tell you without looking what the camera is doing. This is a brilliant feature that I was very grateful for, because it meant that I could confidently get the camera to do what I wanted it to do without having to focus on it—I could watch the animals instead.
With only one button, the number of things that you can do with the camera is limited. By itself, you can only record video, that's it. To change camera settings (contrast, exposure, and more) or shoot in different modes, you'll need to use the (free) app, which uses an initial Bluetooth connection to set up a dedicated Wi-Fi network to talk to the camera. This is how you get a video preview, as well, but personally, I almost never used the app. When I first got the camera, the preview was nice to get a sense of what the camera could and could not see, but otherwise, I felt like relying on the app too much defeated the purpose of a camera that you don't have to aim and that's way more rugged than my phone.
One of the best things about this camera is how easy it is to shoot video. One long press of the button turns the camera on. It vibrates and the LED turns blue. One more press of the button starts recording. The camera vibrates again and the LED starts blinking red. Press the button again to stop recording, and give it a long press to turn the camera off.
The "front" of the camera, or what part of the image is at the center of the recording when you turn the camera on, is approximately where the on button is. While you can change where the center point is later in software, it would be more intuitive, I think, to have this reversed, such that when you turn the camera on (looking at the button as you do so), the opposite side is "forward." This would also mean you could keep your eye on the color of the button while the camera is recording in case it does something wonky.
One of the advantages of 360-degree cameras is that you generally don't have to aim them. Instead, you want to put them at the center of the action. In the Galapagos, this meant putting the camera down and standing back to let animals get close to it. Whenever it wasn't possible to do this (like while snorkeling), I had to put a bit more care into pointing the camera, and since most of snorkeling is heavily subject-oriented, the 360-ness was less relevant.
Generally, I kept the 360fly attached to a small Gorillapod through the screw mount on the bottom of the camera. This worked great, since the Gorillapod kept the overall system compact and flexible. For snorkeling, I attached the camera to a cheap extendable selfie stick using the action camera adapter, and that worked fine as well, although if anything, I wanted even more reach to get the 360fly as close to things as it really needed to be.
My biggest worry about the 360fly as opposed to other 360-degree cameras was that blind spot on the bottom of the camera, in the form of some irrational fear of missing an amazing thing happening in a place where the camera couldn't see it. This was almost never a problem. I mostly had the camera on the ground, and who cares about seeing the ground? The rest of the time, a superficial awareness of where the camera was looking was more than enough.
The one time I felt like I could have really used a fully spherical 360-degree camera was while snorkeling, when a sea lion began curiously swimming circles around me. I suppose that if I'd been thinking, I would have held the 360fly up near my body and pointed it downward rather than trying to track the sea lion in POV mode, and maybe that would have worked better. But the vast majority of the time, the blind spot was a non-issue.
Software and Editing
While you can access all of the content on the 360fly through the app, I find doing anything on mobile endlessly annoying, so I relied primarily on the included desktop video editor, which unfortunately is the weakest point of the 360fly system. Normally, this wouldn't bother me, since there are all kinds of other third party video editors for you to choose from, and this is a camera review, not a software review. But because of the peculiar nature of 360-degree video, it doesn't seem to lend itself to being messed with unless you're willing to jump through a bunch of hoops, so the (by far) easiest and safest thing to do is to just use whatever's included with your camera.
Important features are mostly all there—you can combine clips and crop them, and add music either on top of or to replace the existing audio (very important, because the audio that the 360fly records natively is crap). Critically, you can also set where the center of the video is, effectively changing where the camera was pointing. You can even add in scripted motions to help the viewer follow the action. My second biggest complaint is that there seem to be no options for even basic transitions, which would significantly improve the end product.
The biggest problem, though, is that the software will not allow you to combine videos with different orientations. Generally, you're either shooting with the camera facing up, or the camera facing forward, and the software stubbornly refuses to let you mash everything together into one video. I asked 360fly about this, and they said that it would be confusing for users to watch a video that shifts perspectives like that. I see their point, but I'd much rather have the software warn me about it and allow me to do it than prevent it completely.
Once the video is edited, you can easily attach it to a YouTube account, where it will upload with whatever metadata is required for YouTube to properly present the video in 360-degree format, nice and easy.
360-degree videos are best enjoyed with a headset of some sort. Personally, I don't have anything fancy: my VR setup involves my (rather old now) Nexus 5x Android phone, and a $15 VR headset thing made of cardboard that I have to hold up to my face like a pair of binoculars. It's a shame, because this in no way takes advantage of the 4K resolution of the camera, but the experience that it creates is totally decent and much better than just watching the video on the computer, even if the computer will show it in proper 4K.
Using the headset, the motion sensors in your phone will pan and tilt the video in response to the movement of your head: if you turn your head to the left, the video shifts to the left, making the experience very immersive. This is especially true if there are things moving around the camera or multiple things going on at the same time that you can follow as if you were there in real life. Watching on a static computer screen, you can still see everything by clicking and dragging the video around, but it's much less satisfying.
If you're watching these sample videos on a computer (as opposed to through a headset), make sure to use the mouse to pan around. You can zoom in, as well. The first video combines footage taken on several different islands, and includes a snoozing marine iguana, a baby sea lion, and the muddy armpit of a Galapagos tortoise.
If you look carefully, you can see me off in the distance starting to panic as I watch the tortoise relax on top of the camera. I had not prepared for this possibility (seriously, what are the odds), and I have very little experience convincing highly protected and very large reptiles that they'd rather be lying on top of something less expensive. Fortunately, my guide grew up in a nearby village, and had experience with situations like these, since tortoises sometimes take naps in the middle of the road. Do NOT try this yourself, but if you gently tickle the bottom of a tortoise’s feet from behind, it will get annoyed at you, move, and you can recover your camera.
Capturing myself in these videos was never my intent, but it's turned out to be an unexpected bonus. I never thought that this would be one of the more valuable features of a 360-degree camera, but now that I'm back home, seeing myself in the video helps me remember what it was like to be there.
While the camera did quite well in the Galapagos, I'm pretty sure that in general it's a lousy way to record footage of wildlife. In order to get good results with a specific subject (like an animal), the subject needs to be either very large, or very close, or (ideally) both at the same time. Initially, I spent a while trying to get video of birds by holding the camera up close to them (within a few feet), but nothing turned out all that great—the field of view is simply so wide that everything looks small and far away unless it's right up in your business. For sports-y, scenic-y stuff, this is fine, but if you're trying to focus on a specific subject, it's not ideal.
Is it better than a GoPro?
For most people, this is the big question: a GoPro is an affordable and predictable way to take video while you're out adventuring. I brought along a GoPro on my Galapagos trip and used it about half the time. Is it really worth the extra expense and hassle to try and deal with 360-degree video?
Honestly, it's a tough call. For most things, it might be hard to justify a 360-degree camera. However, there are some moments where the kind of immersion that a 360-degree camera like the 360fly 4K offers is simply magical, and you could never replace that with a more traditional camera like a GoPro. If you want to record video of a specific subject, like a person or an animal, and you can't guarantee being able to get literally on top of or underneath that subject, a 360-degree camera may not give you the kind of footage you want. But is what you want to record happening all around you, as opposed to just in front of you? If so, a 360-degree camera could be worth it.
The 360fly tries to make this decision easy for you by also offering a "POV mode" that shoots a rather distorted 16:9 video with the camera facing forward in an effort to replicate the kind of thing that you'd get with a GoPro. Enabling this mode requires the app, though, so I didn't end up using it all that much (favoring the easy and reliable single button on the camera). But if you're comfortable frequently messing with your phone and don't mind the fisheye, this could work for you. In that case, you get a 360-degree camera plus most of a GoPro, which seems ideal.
I looked at a whole bunch of 360-degree cameras before deciding to review the 360fly 4K. Two things appealed to me: the single lens meant that no stitching was necessary, and the rugged, simple operation meant I could snorkel with it and not have to worry about a case. In practice, I found the compromise of not getting a totally spherical video to be well worth it, especially when it came to the seam-free image quality.
The 360fly 4K came out last year and it lists on the 360fly website for $500, although you can find it on Amazon for $350, or just $300 at REI. It would be harder to recommend at $500, but $300-ish seems reasonable, although the price drop does make us wonder whether 360fly might be releasing something new at CES next January. If they do, we'll be the first to let you know, but either way, I have no trouble recommending the current 360fly 4K as an excellent way to get into 360-degree video.
Disclosure: 360fly kindly lent us a camera for the purposes of this review.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.