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The GoPro drone’s killer feature could be a 360-degree camera

The GoPro drone’s killer feature could be a 360-degree camera


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"Take a moment to look around you."

Maybe it's because we just spent a year over-analyzing Star Wars trailers, but I'm beginning to think GoPro CEO Nick Woodman is trying to tell us something in the teaser video for the company's forthcoming drone. It sounds like the GoPro drone, which is called "Karma" and is being released in 2016, will shoot 360-degree video.

As the test footage rolls, Woodman says some very typically California zen things. "Take a moment to recognize the magic that surrounds us every day," he says, before listing things like the sky, clouds, and trees. "Life is a dream," he declares.

"Now what if you could move freely through this dream, your dream. Go wherever you want, and experience it from any perspective."


GoPro is already betting big on 360-degree video

There are a number of reasons why Woodman could be talking about 360-degree video, starting with the fact that GoPro is already pushing it in a really big way. Earlier this year, Woodman debuted the company's first prosumer spherical camera rig at Code Conference, just minutes before he announced that GoPro would be making a drone. The next day, GoPro announced an even bigger virtual reality camera rig — made in partnership with Google — aimed at filmmakers.

In the meantime, the company has gotten in the habit of shooting 360-degree videos and publishing them on spherical video-friendly platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Both of those companies have been bullish on the idea of spherical videos; YouTube's mobile app allows them to be watched on Cardboard and other VR headsets, while Facebook just published a roundup of the best ones published to its platform this year, all of which have millions of views.

GoPro Spherical: Tahiti Surf VR

Anthony Walsh and Matahi Drollet bring us inside some of the biggest barrels Tahiti has to offer in full 360°.For the most immersive experience, click and drag on your desktop, or move your iOS device in any direction.

Posted by GoPro on Thursday, November 12, 2015

One of the most popular 360-degree videos on Facebook this year was shot by GoPro.

GoPro also bought a virtual reality company called Kolor back in April. (One of Kolor's big strengths was its automatic image stitching software, a key for making these types of videos easy to make.) During the company's first quarter earnings call, Woodman used the Kolor acquisition as a jumping off point to talk about GoPro's future in virtual reality. "There's going to be a natural trickle down desire at the consumer level where people are going to want to capture this type of experience for themselves," he said. "It's only natural to think that they look to GoPro for virtual reality, personal virtual reality spherical content capture solutions in the future. And I think we're well placed to be a leader in that area."

Those comments could very possibly only apply to GoPro's static virtual reality efforts, so let's get back to that Karma video. The footage is good, but not great, especially compared to what you can get out of DJI's Inspire One, or even its cheaper Phantom 3. It doesn't have a ton of dynamic range, and it's not available in 4K. Those could be symptoms of camera software that hasn't been fully tuned, but they're also the hallmarks of 360-degree video shot by smaller, cheaper spherical cameras.

It wouldn't be a complete surprise if this video wound up being spherical

We also don't see it pan or tilt. It's hard to imagine that GoPro would release a drone with a camera that you can't move around, so the company is withholding that for a reason. Perhaps the shot is locked because instead of being able to pan and tilt, you'll just be able to explore the video in any direction after it's shot, and that's what Woodman is hinting.

Or maybe he's just talking about standard drone footage, which can be impressive and immersive without being omnidirectional. After all, making a 360-degree camera that is small enough to be flown but still good enough to produce GoPro-quality footage would be a feat unto itself. Maybe I am just reading too much into it, and should go back to overthinking plot holes in The Force Awakens.

A drone that's capable of shooting 360-degree video would give GoPro some differentiation in a young market that isn't very diverse. But GoPro's massive brand is strong enough to provide that differentiation on its own. And that brand was built on two things: ease of use and image quality. Messing with the company's first drone by adding spherical video would risk damaging that brand.

GoPro's brand is built on image quality

But who knows! Maybe GoPro will release a drone that isn't married to one particular camera. Maybe you'll just be able to use the company's own spherical camera rig as well as one of the company's more traditional action cameras. Maybe GoPro has created a mobile spherical rig that can shoot 360-degree video so well that you could lock the shot in one direction and still get a great 1080p image out of it.

Whatever GoPro does with the Karma, people will want to buy it. Exactly what they're going to get is still up in the air.

(Thanks to reader Rory Dowdell for kicking off the speculation!)