Starting out as a rather chunky hammerhead concept shown at CES 2013, the Theta panoramic camera has since been slimmed down, streamlined and released. Stunning 360 degree views can be instantly captured at the push of a button, the device can be remotely operated via smartphone, and images uploaded to an online photo album and shared on social media. Gizmag has spent the last few weeks generating lots of immersive bubble panoramas with the Theta, and the novelty has yet to wear off. But is the camera worth its rather high price tag?

If devices like the Spinpod, BubblePod and Lomography Spinner are any indication, we're all looking for ways to make panoramic photography a little easier and a whole lot better. Creating a quality 360 degree panorama with the Theta from Ricoh is claimed as easy as holding out the camera and pressing a button.

In the box

  • Ricoh Theta
  • USB cable
  • Soft case
  • Quick Start guide

Ricoh has revealed that the shooting distance from the Theta's two 180 degree lenses to infinity is about 10 cm (4 in). The device measures 1.65 x 5.08 x 0.9 in (42 x 129 x 22.8 mm), including the fish eyes on each side, and tips the scales at 3.35 oz (95 g). It has an ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 1600, auto exposure control and white balance, and about 4 GB of internal memory available to users (which should be enough for about 1,200 images). Its Li-ion battery is claimed good for 200 image captures between charges.

Photos are saved in the JPEG format, but users will need to download Ricoh's image viewing software to enjoy the 360 degree panoramas on a Windows PC or Mac, or a companion app for an Apple smartphone, tablet or media player. Support for the Android platform was added by Ricoh Japan during the review period.

Beyond the published specs, Ricoh is keeping details relating to the sensors, the image processing technology and the lenses pretty much to itself. Repeated requests for more information on such things were met with either an awkward silence or variations on a "technical specifications are undisclosed" theme.

There are six small indents to the top of the camera which suggest a microphone for video recording. Ricoh did tell us that although there are indeed microphones installed in the Theta, "they are not functional at present, they have been included in the product and will become active through future versions of firmware."

A panorama in the palm of your hand

The Theta has the look and feel of a premium product. Except for the camera's bulging eyes front and back, the lack of grubby fingerprint-attracting glossy surfaces is very welcome indeed, and has proven pleasantly easy to keep clean (using just a dampened cloth). To the front is a single button for shutter release topped by a status LED, the right side hosts the power and wireless buttons (and some more status LEDs), and there's a covered USB port to the bottom.

If pressing the power button results in a steady blue LED status light, you're good to go. A slow flashing blue means that you've waited too long and the camera has entered sleep mode (after 5 minutes of inactivity), but pressing the shutter button will wake Theta up again. A further 5 minutes of inactivity results in the camera powering off.

If the flashing blue light has picked up the pace a little, this means that the processor is busy with the last shot and you'll have to wait before you can press the shutter again for your next panorama. A steady red LED signals an error in the electromagnetic compass, and you'll have to move the camera in a figure eight to recalibrate it. A flashing red light lets you know that the camera's firmware is being updated. If there's no light or the blue LED goes out, the internal memory is full and no more photos can be taken.

Taking a photo using just the camera is pretty straightforward and very quick. After powering on the camera, you hold the Theta out front or above your head (or pretty much anywhere about your person) and push the shutter button. That's it. A couple of seconds from start to finish. Each photo is stored to the camera's internal memory.

There's no monitor on the camera of course, so you won't be able to view what you've just taken until you get back to your computer or laptop, which I found rather frustrating. But there is a faster way to look at what you've just captured – via an app running on a smartphone or tablet (or in my case, an iPod touch that Ricoh kindly supplied for the review).

If you're smart, you'll use a phone

Arguably the most attractive aspect of using a smartphone app to remotely activate the shutter, rather than just pushing the release button, is that your photo won't have a super huge thumb appearing at the bottom of the shot, providing you can find a handy wall or tree to hide behind.

I have to admit to being a little concerned about standing Theta upright on a wall, or placing it on the ground, and then walking away before taking the shot. I asked Ricoh if the glass had been strengthened or treated to protect the Theta from such mishaps, but again the company elected to keep such information to itself.

So it was with great care that locations for remote activation were chosen, for fear of the wind catching and toppling the Theta, possibly scratching the lenses or smashing them altogether.

Before you can even start to think about remote camera activation, though, you'll need to establish a wireless connection between Theta and your mobile device of choice. First time setup involves powering on the camera, selecting the SSID of the Theta from the mobile device's list of available network devices and then entering a password. Subsequent connections should be automatically created when the Theta is powered on and the app launched. Sadly, this wasn't always the case in my experience.

True, on a few occasions the connection worked as stated, but more often than not I had to either retry the process from scratch or attempt to refresh the app's screen by sliding a finger vertically down the screen. Getting the devices to talk to each other outdoors proved more difficult than indoors, and maintaining a connection outside also proved more of a trial.

When an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection is active between the Theta and the smartphone, the app's main menu screen shows a link to photos taken using the app, and another to photos stored in the camera's internal memory. If there's no connection, only the former is displayed.

Tapping on either link brings up the captured images sorted by date, and selecting a photo starts the viewer and the panoramic fun can start. An icon to the top right allows for the deletion or transfer of selected images, and it's important to note that photos saved to the camera's internal memory can also be deleted via the app.

There's an icon bottom center that brings up the remote shutter release function. Again, it's not possible to see through the lenses until after the photo has been taken. Once you've tapped the button, the panoramic image is processed and then displayed after a few seconds. You can then pinch, zoom, and move around the 360 degree panoramic bubble that you've just captured. This aspect was the most impressive, and also the most entertaining, part of the whole process.

It's not possible to adjust the light sensitivity on the camera alone, but the app can be used to brighten or darken a second attempt. However, this feature was not present on the version of the app running on the iPod touch supplied by Ricoh, and a number of my photos included sections washed out by the bright Gironde sun. I also found that the ISO sensitivity of 1600 is really not enough to produce stunning shots in moderate to low indoor light, and I've a folder full of grainy, noisy photos as a result.

If the transfer procedure setting in the app is set to Move, images captured using the app are deleted from the camera's internal memory and stored in the app only. This is fine and dandy unless you later decide that you want to transfer those images to your computer, which (if my laborious attempts to do so are anything to go by) can't be done. They're in the app, and that's where they're going to stay. You can opt to share and then perhaps grab a copy from the upload, but that's far more complicated than it needs to be in my opinion.

And that brings me nicely to the social sharing functionality. Uploading to social media is not quite as simple as just posting your panoramas to your timelines or feeds. The photos will first need to be saved to an online album at Ricoh's website and then linked to on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or whatever. Linking to the product website rather than directly uploading to social networks does mean that if, for whatever reason, the Theta site goes offline, so do your photos. A customer review on the iPhone version of the app has also revealed that Ricoh automatically adds an advert to such images.

I didn't upload to Ricoh's website or to any social media during the review, and instead viewed my panoramas through a Windows viewer on a big monitor. To do this, I connected the Theta via USB to my computer, transferred the images into a folder and then opened up a photo in the viewer.

The scroll wheel of the mouse is used to zoom in and out, and the left click button used to drag the image up or down, left or right. A keyboard can be used for navigation and control if that's your poison – the PgDn and PgUp keys for zoom, and the arrow keys to move around.

Although the Windows viewer did offer a similar experience to viewing on the iPod touch's display, the image quality suffered somewhat when transferred to a big monitor. You can opt to look at the JPEG image files through a standard photo viewer, but you'll then be treated to a flattened out, stitched together 6.5 megapixel version of the spherical image seen in Ricoh's proprietary software. This does have its own kind of charm to it, and cropping sections in photo editing software can also yield some nice results.

The bottom line

At just under US$400, this is quite an expensive one-trick-pony. Yes, when the Theta snaps photos in sufficient light, the panoramic images are impressive to look at through the dedicated app or viewing software. Okay, Wi-Fi connection issues aside, it's easy to use and operate. And both the device and the images provide for excellent after dinner chatter. But would it be used beyond the "new and shiny" novelty period?

Answering such a question depends an awful lot on what kind of images you want from your camera. The Theta is small and light enough to take on holiday, to gigs or parties, or even just the daily commute. The ability to remotely-control the camera with a smartphone, and view the magic via its touchscreen display, are definite winners. Having to upload to Ricoh's website, rather than direct to social network pages, not so much.

Though the wow factor of 360 panoramic photography hasn't yet worn off, I do feel that it wouldn't be too long before I went back to using the frame-stitch features in my smartphone camera apps, or similar functionality in my point-and-shoot, rather than dig out the Theta.

This is probably not a camera I would take with me on holiday, or while out for a stroll with the dogs. It's definitely not something I would use in my work life. It's just too niche for all that. I'm naturally attracted to the geekiness of the device and it is a fun tool to use, but its price is a little too rich for my blood.

If Ricoh integrated the best features of this technology into a cheap compact camera or lens attachment, I think that I'd be more inclined to open my wallet.

Product page: Ricoh Theta

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