Virtual reality games might have taken the center stage at E3 earlier this month, but film could still be a major draw for the medium. And Jaunt, one of the frontrunners in VR video, is trying to perfect the technology that would require with a 360-degree professional camera. The Neo, as it's unofficially named, is a wheel studded with wide-angle cameras. Together, the images they produce form a sphere of video that filmmakers can put viewers inside. That could be anything from a traditional narrative film to a stadium rock show — Jaunt sees concerts as especially fertile ground for VR.
This is the two-year-old Jaunt's fifth generation of camera, and it's far from the only company to be working on 360-degree video. Samsung has introduced a VR camera array, the rugged Giroptic is meant as a 360-degree competitor to GoPro, and GoPro itself is working in virtual reality; it's producing a version of a 3D-printable, 16-camera stand designed by Google for its VR YouTube initiative. Jaunt, however, is operating on the extremely high end — it's not releasing a price or even planning to sell the Neo, opting to lease it to partners starting in August. "The camera is a very bespoke camera, and it's going to be produced at low volume," says CTO Arthur van Hoff.
"The camera is a very bespoke camera, and it's going to be produced at low volume."
The production cost, he says, is so high because this is the first camera Jaunt has built with custom parts; it's previously tried everything from bulky, non-portable camera cabinets to its own printed GoPro prototype. Making a custom design has supposedly let Jaunt add marked improvements, like better low-light performance and synchronized shutter sensors. In its off-the-shelf prototypes, says hardware engineering director Koji Gardiner, there were slight differences between when each separate camera would start capturing a frame. If the filmmaker recorded something speeding across multiple cameras, it would end up misaligned in the final video. (Gardiner says this was also a major problem with concert strobe lights, which could end up flashing out of sync.)
Neo should also give filmmakers fine-grained control over its settings and integrate with editing software like Maya and Adobe Premiere. And it supports 3D light-field video, a cinematic version of the impressive refocusing trick that Lytro introduced people to a few years ago... and some other VR setups are using to create a greater sense of realism.
Jaunt isn't a hardware company so much as a studio; van Hoff refers to it as the "Genius Bar for VR." It partners with companies like Conde Nast to help produce VR film, most recently launching its own production house with a handful of Lucasfilm alumni. Last week, it announced a deal with Google to record high-end video for the Cardboard headset. When companies lease the Neo cameras, they'll also get instruction in how to actually record in VR. "In some ways it's cheaper, and in some ways it's more complicated," says van Hoff of 360-degree filmmaking. In a concert, for example, filmmakers could just set down a handful of cameras and walk away, but a traditional film set would have to be redesigned to accommodate cameras that see in every direction at once.
Ultimately, the Neo is more a means to an end than a commercial product. If spherical video takes off, people will end up spending more time with setups like GoPro's, but they could see the results of something like the Neo in Hollywood-level VR. "We actually don't mind working with other professional-quality VR cameras if they were to exist, because we're not really a camera company," says van Hoff. "We just built this camera because we needed it."
Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly said that GoPro, not Google, designed the 16-camera Jump design.