Hoping to dramatically increase the amount of 360-degree video on its platform, Facebook today unveiled a reference design for a high-end video capture system and announced plans to release it as an open-source project on GitHub. Shaped like a flying saucer, Facebook Surround 360 uses a 17-camera array and accompanying web-based software to capture images in 360 degrees and render them automatically. Facebook says the design solves a variety of technical problems with 360-degree video capture better than anything now on the market, and is encouraging manufacturers and hobbyists to use its designs to build cameras of their own.
The rig includes 14 wide-angle cameras bolted onto the flying saucer, plus one fish-eye camera on top and two more on the bottom. This allows the device to capture the surroundings without showing the pole holding up the camera, a common problem here in the early days of 360-degree video. The cameras use what is known as a global shutter instead of a rolling one, which ensures the resulting footage does not display artifacts from the closing of individual shutters. In a brief demonstration Monday at Facebook headquarters, video captured through Surround 360 appeared to be crisp and seamless, with no flaws visible in the footage. (On the other hand, Samsung Gear VR, which I used to watch the demo, remains a grainy and sub-optimal way to view this type of footage.)
The best camera of its kind, according to Facebook
Facebook is positioning Surround 360 as the best-designed camera of its kind, thanks to integrated hardware and software designed by the company to work in harmony. The device can work for "many hours" without overheating, and exports video in resolution up to 8K. It can be viewed on Gear VR, Oculus, and inside the Facebook app, among other places. "There's something about how high-quality the experience is that immediately makes you believe in 360 film," said Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, in an interview with reporters Monday.
Making 360-degree cameras is increasingly a priority for tech companies, and they've begun building both cheap devices for consumers and high-end models for Hollywood. On the lower end of the spectrum, 360 action cameras have been announced by Nikon and GoPro. On the high end, GoPro also built a $15,000, 16-camera VR rig in a collaboration with Google named Odyssey; it went on sale in September. And last summer Nokia unveiled Ozo, a next-generation 360 camera aimed at professional filmmakers. The device, which will sell for $60,000, began shipping last month. The cameras are designed to enable a new generation of filmmaking, which tech companies are betting will be consumed on virtual reality headsets.
"My goal is to put myself out of a job."
It costs $30,000 to buy the materials necessary to build a Surround 360, Facebook says. Work on the project began about a year ago as Facebook began to obsess about bringing more video to the feed. Cox says Facebook has no interest in becoming a camera manufacturer. Brian Cabral, a director of engineering who led the project, says, "My goal is to put myself out of a job."
But Cabral will have to hold on a while longer — Facebook won't put the open-source designs on Github until sometime this summer. Until then, filmmakers can evaluate the various options they have for capturing video in 360 degrees, and decide for themselves how Facebook's design holds up.