One of the highlights of Facebook's F8 conference on Tuesday was its unveiling of a 360-degree video camera and software system. The camera, which will cost at least $25,000 to build, includes 17 different capture devices that are synchronized, and can record two hours of 360-degree video at up to 60 frames per second, as much as 8k per eye.
Facebook is also releasing software that stitches the footage together seamlessly.
Both the hardware and software, as well as the stitching code, are open source projects. Developers will have access to the system on GitHub starting this summer. Facebook is open-sourcing the camera to "accelerate the growth of the 3-D-360 ecosystem—developers can leverage the designs and code, and content creators can use the camera in their productions," said Chris Cox, Facebook's chief product officer.
"Facebook doesn't want to be in the camera business," he added.
In an interview immediately following the F8 keynote address, Facebook engineering director Brian Cabral told Fast Company that the company "wanted it open and accessible...because [360 video is] a nascent technology and a nascent burgeoning area" and that by open-sourcing the project, "we knew we could get a lot of sharing and learn faster and grow the ecosystem faster" as people work with the camera and experiment with it.
The camera is built to produce truly spherical 3-D footage. Cabral explained that Facebook pursued the project because of what it saw as a "almost a hole" in the market of existing 360 cameras. Those include high-end systems like Nokia's Ozo, Jaunt's One, Google's Jump, and many others. There are also a wide range of lower-quality cameras. Cabral said that "When we looked at the marketplace, we didn’t see anything out there that met minimum requirements. We wanted it to be rugged, reliable, and we wanted it to envelop you fully in 360 [degrees] and we wanted you to feel like you could look all around."
He added that although the competing cameras mentioned above all met some of those requirements, Facebook decided each fell short in one area or another, leaving room for a new high-end camera system.
For one thing, he pointed out, the camera was designed with an end-to-end work flow that lets it "behave like a camera," with almost out-of-the-box functionality that allows users to record and capture easily and then auto-stitch the resulting video into a single 360-degree video.
"Creating virtual reality requires a post-production process that is very complex and lengthy," said Armando Kirwin, executive producer and head of post production at VR content developer Vrse.works in a statement provided to Fast Company. "In fact, turnaround time for an average project is two to three months. The beauty of the Facebook Surround 360 is that it stitches internally—dramatically reducing the time spent in post. It also produces the highest resolution stereo image I have ever seen from a VR camera. This will free up more time to focus on what matters: crafting meaningful stories and being creative."
The device as designed has 14 wide-angle cameras bolted onto a horizontal ring, with a fish-eye camera on top and two on the bottom, making it possible to capture not just 360 video but also everything up and everything down. The 14 cameras around the ring of the aluminum chassis mean the camera captures stereoscopic video, necessary for 3-D capture. Camera sensors capture with a global shutter, meaning moving objects in the video will be free of rolling shutter artifacts.
Cabral said that when the reference design for the camera system is released this summer, builders should expect that the various components required to construct it will cost between $25,000 and $30,000, depending on the exact configuration they choose. Over time, and as more people build the cameras, that pricing should come down, he predicted, although he said he also expects some people to want an even more sophisticated version that will cost more than $30,000.
One question, of course, is who will use such an expensive device. Certainly, it won't be everyday consumers, who can already choose from a number of inexpensive 360-degree cameras such as Ricoh's Theta S. Cabral said he expects the Facebook 360 camera will be used by makers who have the resources to put it together, and by prosumers and production professionals who are looking for "ever more solutions to shoot with."
At the same time, Cabral explained that he expects the camera project to evolve naturally thanks to the community of people interested in using it.
"We’ll be interacting with them," he said, "interacting with content developers and code developers, [the] people who will be growing all of this, trying this with us....people will say they have new variants on the design….that community that will help drive it."
For more F8 news, follow our live coverage.