Nikon’s new action camera could change the market in a big way

This is the year action cameras and 360-degree videos collide

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This year's Consumer Electronics Show wasn't a big one for cameras; it rarely is. But a little reading between the lines and a glance at one of Nikon's announcements make one thing obvious: the action camera market is about to totally change.

I'm using the term "action camera" pretty broadly here in order to include spherical cameras, or ones that can shoot 360-degree video. Just a handful of these are on the market, and their closest analogue is the type of camera made popular by GoPro.

This year's show proved that those two types of cameras are heading very much in the same direction. Let's start with Nikon, which announced the KeyMission 360 — a 360-degree camera that is the first in a forthcoming line of action cameras.

That Nikon is making both types of these cameras is a big deal. Until now, the only major camera company that's tried to compete with GoPro is Sony. (Other companies, like Garmin and TomTom, have had mild, if any, success.) That lack of competition is part of the reason GoPro has gone more than a year since it last released a flagship camera. (The Hero4 lineup was introduced in the fall of 2014.) A stalwart like Nikon, which can rely heavily on its own supply chain for optics and image sensors, could put pressure on GoPro and Sony to innovate much faster.

The same likely goes for the companies making consumer-level 360-degree cameras. Until this week, the best one on the market was the Ricoh Theta S. It takes great spherical photos, but the video is still a step or two behind in terms of quality. Companies like 360Fly and JK Imaging (which makes the Kodak PixPro) are at or behind that level of quality. And that's about it. No one else is really making affordable cameras that can shoot spherical content, mostly because the idea is so new — after all, it was only just this past year that platforms like YouTube and Facebook made it possible to easily view spherical video.

Nick Woodman's announcement felt more like a concession

But it wasn't just Nikon's announcement that moved the needle. A few days later, during YouTube's keynote event, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman let loose that his company is planning to release its own consumer-grade 360-degree camera.It's not particularly surprising that GoPro is making one; Woodman has been extremely bullish on the idea of spherical video and virtual reality in general, and GoPro has released a number of high-quality versions of these videos on both YouTube and Facebook.

What is surprising is that Nikon beat GoPro to the punch. And that made Woodman's announcement feel more like a concession, something he had to say to save a little face because his company wasn't the first to do something for once.

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GoPro has a deep lineup of cameras, which will be tough for Nikon to compete with.

That doesn't mean GoPro has lost anything tangible here. There should be plenty space for GoPro and Nikon to pit competing lineups full of traditional action cameras and ones that can shoot 360-degree video against each other. And GoPro does have one small advantage: drones. GoPro's releasing a quadcopter this year, and it more than likely will work with this new spherical camera. That's not something Nikon can say (yet).

What's funny is that among all of this activity, Sony once again finds itself playing catch-up. The company was a little late to action cameras when it released its first one in 2012, and it was beaten by GoPro to the inclusion of 4K recording. (It also took Sony until this year's CES to clean up the user interface on its Action Cams.) It's not really a surprise — the company has such a successful image sensor business that it was spun off in 2015 — but if Sony wasn't comfortable playing second fiddle to GoPro, it definitely won't want to also fall behind a more traditional competitor like Nikon.

The best news about this increased competition is it's a huge deal for consumers. Action cameras, both traditional and spherical, have already become pretty affordable, topping out at $500 and dipping as low as $129. Cheaper cameras and better quality will mean more people will be playing around with them — which is especially important for spherical videos considering no one has quite figured out the best way to shoot them, or the best subjects to film.

Just a few weeks ago, the action camera market was the same old story. GoPro reigned, Sony played prince, and the rest were left to scramble for scraps. Nikon's new camera wont be released until later this year, but it's already shifted that dynamic tremendously.

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