Tuesday, 26 July 2016 09:03

360fly 4K – live life uncropped (review)

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We all know 360° photography — the photosphere is the next big thing. LG, Samsung, Ricoh and others have reasonably priced HD models out now. How do you stay ahead? Add 4K video, of course.

The 360fly 4K was released in June, and I have been “playing" with it for more than a month now. My initial tests were discouraging – not because of the excellent hardware or software but because of me. I was trained as a photographer to compose a shot, to block out any extraneous or distracting material, and to frame the one picture the perfect shot to say a thousand words.

Well, in 360° photography there are infinite angles telling infinite stories – get your head around that and all is well! As 360fly is wont to say “Life is too good to be missed by being out of frame.”

But as I discovered there are meh 360° cameras, and there are 360° cameras that really work. The 360fly 4K is can be in the latter category if you work at perfecting your photosphere skills. Read on for the formal review then see mountain biker, IT guru, and guest writer Quintin Humphries take on this interesting camera.

Out of the box – well, cylinder

360fly cylinderIt is a faceted diamond-cut, billiard ball shape. It has a 1/4” action cam adaptor (a.k.a. tripod to Go-Pro mount system adaptor), a magnetic recharge cradle (USB 2.0), carry pouch, and quick start guide. No charger is provided, and it will work off 500mA to 2.0A – the latter is recommended for the quickest charge.

It is IP6X rated – that’s water resistant to 1ATM (10M), dust-resistant, and can withstand drops up to 1.5 metres. It is not unbreakable, and the lens needs special care to prevent scratches.

It has a single diamond facet switch to turn it on and off (blue light) and to start/stop (red light) recording. The purple indicator means “Charge me.”

 

 

Specifications

  • Resolution: Single lens, 2880 x 2880, 8-element, f/2.5, 360° x 240° field of view
  • Video: H.264, MPEG-4, 2880x2880 @ 24 or 30fps, OR first person POV, 16:9, 2560 x 1440, 178° for forward action shots
  • Time lapse (.5-60-second shutter intervals), burst mode and live streaming
  • Mics: Dual Omnidirectional, stereo 192Khz, ACC sound
  • Processor/storage: Qualcomm 800, 64GB internal, non-removable
  • Battery: 1710mAH non-removable typically giving 1.5-2 hours on/recording use. Sits on magnetic USB Cradle – recharge between 1.5-3 hours depending on charger amperage.
  • Sensors: Accelerometer (motion detect), e-compass, gyroscope, GPS, haptic feedback
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: Wi-Fi N dual band, Bluetooth LE
  • OS: Apps for iOS and Android as well as Desktop Director for Windows and macOS
  • Dimensions/Weight: 61mm sphere and 138g plus mount

Using it

My first few attempts produced blurry, fuzzy images – due to camera shake which is a fact of life with 4K. You must resist using it as a handheld camera except in forward POV mode.

If you are an action aficionado, consider acquiring a 3-axis gimbal mount like the wearable Feiyu WG or the Zhiyun Z1-Rider. They are not cheap — $300-500 but will help when careering down the mountain on a bike or skis. To be fair to 360fly, the same warning applies to GoPro too. Otherwise place it on a tripod, table or other fixed mount.

To put the device in perspective, it is different to most 360° current cameras – it has one spherical lens instead of the usual two opposed 180° lenses. It is a subtle difference, but one that had me tripping up until I learned about placement.

For example, if you place it on a table, tripod, or mount it on a bike helmet, it will record everything above and around it. If you use it on its side, it will get a semi-circle view in front of, and to the sides of the lens.

There is a conical blackspot — below the camera lens that you need to get used to. You need to experiment as there is no single focus point. For me, it was best to place it down lower (on the floor with the lens facing up but you get a lot of belly paunches and double chins) or higher overhead (with the lens facing down – watch out for chrome dome effects).

There is a telemetry mode using the GPS to tag locations, an altimeter, and an accelerometer.

You can live stream their 360-degree content across the LIVIT mobile app – so your friends and family can see all the action in real time; no editing or uploading required.

Apps/Desktop software

The smartphone app at its most basic is a viewfinder that you will use a lot until you get used to placement. It is also a remote record button. It will also tell you the battery life, the amount of remaining memory, and allow you to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, ISO and more photo settings as well as set device names, passwords, updates, etc.

It then becomes one method of downloading and sharing – the other is to a computer.

You can edit on the smartphone, but most don’t have sufficient storage space as it creates some temporary files and final saves that will overwhelm most inbuilt memory.

You can add a music overlay here, but it can be overpowered by the microphones and background noise. You can use an external Bluetooth microphone to improve the otherwise hollow sounding audio.

The Desktop Director software has more editing features and doing this on a larger screen is far more tolerable than a smartphone. Editing, however, is really about slicing and dicing – cutting larger recordings up into smaller, relevant chunks, looking at the 360° effect by mousing around, and then upload to Facebook, YouTube or 360fly’s site.

In my opinion, every “save” was too damned slow and reduced the quality a little – losing brightness and increasing graininess. Uploaded clips don’t look nearly as good as the original. Make sure you shoot and upload at the highest quality. Avoid edits.

The app allows you to take a still image – fisheye, 16:9 and panoramic. While it is supposed to be 4K that refers to video only the sensor is 16MP “16:9 equivalent” and the f/2.5 lens means it is best to use it in daylight or good indoor light if you want reasonable stills.

My major complaint is the very slow download/upload times – it is painful.

VR

The 360° shoots in the round – it is not true VR, but a flat rendering. If you open it up in a photo app, you will see the sky in the middle and the image wrapped around it. To view it in 360° you need to upload to a 360 compatible website.

You won’t get dizzy moving around the image using a VR headset because it is 2D – not 3D. 360fly also makes a generic VR headset that will accept smartphones from 5 to 6” but don’t try it with less than a 1080p screen – Samsung’s amazing S7 Edge resolution of 2560 x 1440 and 577ppi was vastly superior in this device.

Image quality

It is good if you compare it to other 360° cameras. 4K video recording makes a difference in the detail captured, but it is nowhere near what you get out of a flagship smartphone. The best way to describe image quality is “soft”.

It is very susceptible to strong light coming from a single source giving flareouts and reducing the brightness of the shots all around – good, even though daylight is best.

To be fair and I have reviewed other 360° cameras it is no worse regarding light needs than any other. Let’s just say that where lower cost cameras produce acceptable images, the 360fly 4K does slightly better.

It is a poor low-light performer. In part, that is the f/2.5 aperture but it simply does not capture detail in shadows, and there is no HDR. If using it indoors, you must have even light. I placed it near a window (bright light outside), and the rest of the shot was very washed out – placement is all.

A real user’s perspective

And now for a “real user's” perspective – here is Quintin Humphries. “I am a mountain biker – have been riding bikes for over 10 years. In that time, I have used standard handicams to GoPro Hero 3.”

First, watch a three-minute clip that Quin shot. Two things. First, look for the settings button in the bottom right and adjust the quality to 4K otherwise you will see it in 720p. Next don't forget to mouse around the directional buttons to change the view.

Startup

If you want to connect to a Windows PC make sure it's fully charged or you may get a detect, drop, detect, drop scenario. It ships without a charger, and you need a 5V/2A or charging is too slow. Official charge time is two hours but with a 2A it was about one and a half.

You need to install the 360fly app on your Android or iOS phone. It connects via a direct Wi-Fi connection.

Mounting/Orientation

360fly helmetFor the first test, I used the camera on a GoPro helmet mount with the lens pointing up. This orientation is best for activities such as recording wedding speeches, at the front of the stage at a rock concert, or on the bonnet of a car. There was, however, a noticeable weight increase – there was something compared to a lighter GoPro.

In this orientation, you could see the trail in front, behind and sides but you could not see the rider or the bike. The image stabilisation is good compared to the GoPro that tends to emphasise the bumps.

360fly mount cantileverBut I wanted to be able to watch the bike and the rider as well as see the other important views such as straight ahead and to the sides. This required the lens to face down. I jury-rigged a front facing boom with a rear counterweight.  This rig was heavy and obstructed my riding style and ability to perform optimally. I am sure this would be the same for any brand of camera.

This orientation captures activity directly underneath the camera and would be ideal on the mast of a sailboat, hanging off the side of a roof on a race car, or under a drone.

What it illustrates is that you need a variety of mounting options to get the shots you expect.

Apps and software

The phone app was intuitive a lot like the GoPro in the sense that it connects via Wi-Fi, you preview, start and stop recording, take pictures, browse media on the camera, and connect to 360Fly online to browse videos by other users.  

You can transfer footage to your phone. However this is cumbersome since 4K video clips are gigabytes in size, and it takes a short lifetime to transfer – with a couple of clips, and most phones would be full. 

The real power is in the 360 Director Desktop app, where you can cut and merge clips, share directly to social media or export to edit or share later.  It worked well, a crash here and there, and, like the phone app, feels a little green. But I’m sure that in coming releases more features will be introduced, and the stability will increase.  It was easy enough to use and a good place to manage and view your spherical videos since you can’t view them in Windows Media player.

Editing

Most users will record short clips and upload them straight to YouTube without modification. Others will want to trim and split clips, join a few together, and then export/share the result. 360 Director is fine for that.

However, if you want more add titles, trim, clip, music, and join more than five clips — you will need another app for that that supports YouTube 360. You cannot yet mix both flat content and spherical content in a single video.

If you are exporting your spherical video to another application for editing, be aware that you may need to run it through a small, free third-party application called the “spatial media metadata injector” that adds back some of the metadata that is stripped by traditional flat editing programs.  Since most editing environments don’t understand the spherical concept yet, they miss generating some of the background information that is required to tell the player that it is a spherical video file.

Each time you export, edit, and export, import, then export again, you lose quality, and it compounds with every export.  For best results, videos should be as uncompressed as possible.

When 360 Director trims a video, it copies the section of the video and creates a new file on your C drive so make sure you have space. Each time you clip a section, it is re-encoded, so it takes a long time to trim and adds another layer of compression to your video. This is a limitation in the software and hinders your options for high-quality output if you require trimming and joining.

There are a few paid programs that offer more features for editing spherical videos like Magix Video Pro X and the very latest update of Adobe Premiere.

Make sure your Internet connection is good.  My example video (about 3 minutes) is 1.8GB and took about 4 hours on a 1Mb upstream ADSL.  During that time my Internet connection was mostly unusable.

VR

360fly in roundMy experience with VR to date is nil. When I uploaded the video and viewed it on in the 360fly VR headset (using an iPhone 6) I was suitably impressed, mainly by the way you can turn your head and look left and right.  It is also nicer to watch inside a darkened box, much more immersive.

YouTube has a feature for mobile VR playback where you can use “cardboard player” mode. The option is available as a little button on the player which splits the video into two identical copies side by side and the player merges them through the optics.  It gives a very basic 3D feel and it’s a little too flat to be immersive.

The headset does not have a “magnetic button” so you can’t interact with the screen from inside the headset.  That means you have to start the video playing, then switch to the cardboard player, then close the box, then put it on your head, then focus using the rollers to watch any video.  You will miss the first 10 seconds or more.

 My take

It is fun for certain things, but it is not an everyday camera. Action freaks will master it and show incredible clips on YouTube. Mounting position and light weight mounts are key to getting the best from it.

Conclusion

If 360° photosphere is the next big thing, then 360fly 4K leads the way for cameras under $1000. At $849.95 plus extra mounts and its VR headset, you won’t get much change from a K-note.

It has a few downsides, but most of these will not be issues to the knowledgeable user.

  • 1.5-hour battery life and 2-3-hour charging – non-removable makes it waterproof but less convenient.
  • The lens must be spotlessly clean – no dust, water spots, etc., or it shows up in the shot.
  • Painfully slow uploads to the camera or computer and even more painfully slow uploads to 360fly site – slightly less so to YouTube.
  • App and desktop software is “early” and needs more work.
  • Editing reduces quality – shot short clips and upload directly.
  • You need to learn to master this camera – it sees all – except the area below the lens.
  • Motion and audio detection are to be added to the app for security use.

My friends over at Ausdriod have a 360° camera round-up that may be of interest.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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