We're going through an exciting period in the development of consumer drones. DJI has perfected the formula for a unit that bridges the gap between something anyone can fly right out of the box, but still packs enough power to excite professional fliers and filmmakers. Parrot, which built one of the more successful among the first generation of consumer drones, is trying to take things to the next level with its new unit, the Bebop. Even better, they are building it with a simple integration to virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, opening up an amazing new way to experience flight.
Parrot made Martha Stewart's favorite drone
My main complaint about previous Parrot units was that you could only control it from a mobile app. This approach definitely helped to make Parrot a mainstream hit, with glowing reviews from celebrities like Martha Stewart. But I always found the response from the mobile app controls to be mushy and unpredictable, especially when compared with RC controllers. And the WifF connection with the app also severely limited your range.
With the Bebop, Parrot is also introducing a physical flight controller. It still relies on WiFi, not radio signals, but felt far more capable and responsive than the app. You can mount a range extender onto the controller, allowing you to control the Bebop from a distance of over one mile. The controller is a bit bulky, relying on a neck strap to help you hold it. But it has a nice mount for your mobile device, so that you can easily see your live stream while flying. The Bebop, which goes on sale December 1, costs $499 without the controller/range extender and $899 with it.
A fisheye lens has pros and cons
The most unique feature of the Bebop is the camera. Instead of an external unit attached to a gimble, the Bebop has an internal camera with a 180-degree fisheye lens. You can move the focus of the camera around within that wide field of vision, allowing you to keep the drone hovering in one place while you capture something in motion.
I found it easy and fun to pan around with the camera while flying, and the footage was very smooth. But the quality of the video, at least indoors, was not great. Parrot engineers said the camera was built for use principally outdoors, and that natural light would have improved the image quality. It feels like overall there will be a tradeoff, with this approach making it easier to capture certain shots, but costing you in terms of image quality.
The best part of our demo session with the Bebop, however, was testing out an integration with headset technology that puts you inside the drone with a first-person perspective. We tried it out with a pair of ZEISS Cinemizer OLED glasses, and the experience was terrific. Even within the very limited confines of our indoor space, you could still get a rush from flying through a drone's-eye view. I imagine it would be far more exciting when zipping over cliffs and under bridges outside. It would also be best with head tracking, which is possible using the fisheye lens. Parrot has created an integration with the Oculus Rift that includes this capability, and we're looking forward to trying it out for ourselves very soon. The video below, from an expert drone pilot, is already incredible and intense. Now imagine it from an immersive first-person perspective.