Google sure likes to shake things up.
Over the last few months, 360-degree virtual-reality video has become one of the hottest trends in filmmaking, given that it allows viewers to watch live action in 360 degrees on devices like Samsung’s Gear VR, Google’s Cardboard, or the Oculus Rift.
But for those wanting to work in the genre, producing high-quality, seamless imagery has been a major challenge.
Yesterday, Google announced Jump, a 3-D virtual-reality camera and stitching software system that, while not inexpensive, could be simpler and more affordable to use than just about anything currently on the market. And while it’s too early to tell if the new technology–16 GoPro cameras mounted on a special rig, as well as software designed to seamlessly stitch video together–can deliver on its promise, it has a lot of people very excited.
“Without a doubt, the Google announcement has gotten a lot of people at a lot of [virtual reality] companies talking,” said Christina Heller, the CEO of VR Playhouse, which produces short virtual-reality films. “It was definitely a big announcement, because Google is such a dominant force, and when they want to do something, they’re going to do it.”
Until now, filmmakers wanting to shoot 360 video haven’t had a lot of choices. As Heller explained, many people have made their own rigs out of between six and 10 GoPro cameras. And that’s before trying to take the resulting footage and turn it into something that’s worth watching.
“The challenge has always been stitching,” Heller said, speaking of the process needed to blend multiple videos together into a single film that a viewer can watch. “To get a perfect stitch, you have to use a number of software programs, and it takes a lot of time.”
But that’s exactly where Google wants to apply its substantial computing resources. The company said during its developers conference yesterday that its software is capable of taking video from the 16 GoPros and stitching them together into high-resolution 3-D films with no visible seams.
Heller said there have been cameras capable of auto-stitching video, but they’ve largely produced low-resolution output. By comparison, Google promises that Jump will generate footage that is “super high resolution–the equivalent of five 4K TVs playing at once.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Heller said. “But yeah, it’s a big deal.”
For those making 360-degree VR video, the effort required has been substantial. Take the experience of the production studio Bullitt, which Google hired to produce a live-action short for this week’s developers conference. As Fast Company’s Mark Wilson wrote this week, Bullitt–cofounded by Justin Lin, who directed four of the Fast and the Furious movies–had to build its own 360-degree camera, as well as design its own capture systems, postproduction workflows, and playback system. The company was able to produce high-resolution video, but it clearly took a great deal of work and time.
Now, Google is hoping to bring these capabilities to the masses–at least the masses that can afford a setup with 16 $400 cameras, or a minimum outlay of $6,400.
For its part, VR Playhouse has used a combination of custom rigs with built-in GoPros, as well as Kolor’s Autopano image-stitching software and Adobe’s After Effects 3-D production tools. The Los Angeles-based company is planning on releasing a series of short-form 360 VR films this summer. “With our films, you don’t see the stitch lines,” Heller said, “but it has been an incredibly [time-consuming process].”
Heller said that if the Jump technology can do what Google promised, VR Playhouse wants to get onboard. In fact, she said, “As soon as we read the announcement, we were making calls to see if we could get one.”
However, she said that the camera rig, as Google explained it yesterday, does leave her with one substantial concern: It doesn’t appear to have a camera on its top or its bottom, which, if true, could mean it can’t capture video above or below, something that is a staple of many VR films.
Heller’s not the only one with this concern. Ryan Holmes, the CEO of SpaceVR, which is building a 360-degree 3-D camera system it hopes to mount on the International Space Station, agreed that Google’s camera has limits. “The lack of bottom and top cameras is concerning,” Holmes said. “Even the best stitching software can’t make the top and bottom stitch convergence look good without cameras there.”
But Holmes said the Jump software is “amazing for the VR community.” He added that SpaceVR is considering using it if it delivers the quality Google promised.
There are, of course, other camera and software options on the high and low ends. When inexperienced filmmakers have asked her what she recommends for shooting 360 video, Heller has suggested a Freedom360 rig, which is a specialized mount that holds six GoPros and shoots in all directions, as well as an Alienware laptop, Autopano, and After Effects.
For those wanting seamless video, Jaunt VR offers a high-end system that includes a special camera and purpose-built production software. Jaunt also now has a VR production studio in Los Angeles that it is making available to VR filmmakers. But that’s largely aimed at professionals.
Heller noted that if Google’s getting in the game, others are sure to follow with their own affordable high-resolution auto-stitching camera-software combinations. But no one has gotten there yet. “If this is is the first 360 camera that has high-resolution and stitches itself,” Heller said, “then we will definitely use it.”