Facebook builds its dream virtual reality video camera, and gives the design away for free
One observant media executive noted that Uber, the world's largest taxi company, owns no cars, AirBnb, the largest accomodation provider, owns no real estate and Facebook, the most popular media owner, creates no content. The social media giant looks unlikely to change course as it forges ahead with its grand vision for virtual reality, but it does want to have a hand in the tools that bring it to us. Announced today, Facebook's Surround 360 is a 17-lens 3D-360-degree video capture system that looks like a spaceship and produces VR content on the fly, but its most impressive feature? The design and software will be entirely open-source.
That Facebook is betting big on immersive video and VR isn't exactly a secret. Users of the platform may have spotted 360-degree clips already appearing on their News Feeds, and perhaps even strapped on a VR headset to have a look around for themselves. So when you consider its US$2 billion acquisition of Oculus, Facebook is clearly working toward a future where our social networking is facilitated through augmented and virtual realities.
From the platforms that deliver the experience to the hardware that creates it, Facebook is looking to shape the emergence of immersive video from one end to the other. The Surround 360 system is kind of like Tesla's Roadster, an outrageously expensive pony aimed at piquing the interest of an influential few and then inspiring a wave of commoners to follow suit.
Fourteen cameras face outwards in a neatly arranged circular array, with one fish eye camera pointing upwards and two down below. The 17 camera sensors shoot at 30 and 60 frames per second and work with a global shutter, meaning that every pixel is captured at the same moment. This synchronization makes it easier for the footage to be smoothly stitched together.
This process is also handled aboard the Surround 360 through Facebook's computational imaging algorithm, which it claims builds on existing optical flow algorithms but is more mathematically complex and provides superior results. The resulting video is output at 4K, 6K and 8K per eye, which can be viewed on VR headsets like Oculus Rift and Gear VR.
The Surround 360's cameras are fixed to an aluminum chassis with the outer housing crafted from powder-coated steel. The company says that these materials provide enough stability to avoid pesky camera shake and protect the insides from damage.
It may be a relatively nascent type of tech, but 360-degree cameras are already starting to emerge at all kinds of price points. You have shooters like Kodak's Pixpro SP360-4K and Ricoh's Theta S, costing no more than $500. GoPro also has a consumer-friendly 360-degree camera array on the way called Omni, which we assume will be cheaper than its $15,000 Odyssey setup consisting of 16 GoPro Hero4 Blacks.
Like the Odyssey, and other high-grade spherical shooters like Nokia's $60,000 Ozo, the Surround 360 was designed with professional VR content creators in mind. Facebook won't be selling the device, nor does it seem to harbor ambitions to branch out into camera manufacturing, but the Surround 360 could prove significant in a way that doesn't immediately impact the company's bottom line.
By giving anyone and everyone access to a 3D-360-degree video camera design that it claims to be production-ready and state-of-the-art, Facebook is playing the long game. It hopes by making the design and stitching code open source on Github this US summer, imaginative minds will clamber over one another to build their own and start adding to the VR content pool. Provided of course they have $30,000 for the necessary parts to spare.