After years of languishing, virtual reality is suddenly all around us. High-quality consumer headsets are finally available for purchase, and there are a handful of phone-powered mobile VR options as well. Each platform comes with a way to download high-quality content like video games, short films, and other immersive experiences. One thing that's still lacking, though, is an easy and affordable way to live stream footage to all these headsets.
The Orah 4i could change that. It's a small and simple 4K camera rig that's being made by a company called VideoStitch, which has made stitching software for live-streamed 360-degree video for about four years. VideoStitch spent that time selling this software to companies that were ahead of the curve when it comes to live-streaming 360-degree video. But Dan Doornink, VideoStitch's vice president of strategic partnerships, says that the team kept seeing these companies run into a few major problems.
VideoStitch sees a gap in the VR camera market
One is that camera rigs that are currently capable of live-streaming are unwieldy, usually consisting of at least six GoPros. They're able to capture high-quality footage, but the hacked-together assembly is often accompanied by a mess of wires, all of which could get tangled, come unplugged, or fail. They also need to be hooked into a powerful computer to manage all the data, leading to complicated setups with little mobility.
There are a few purpose-built rigs on the market (like the JauntVR camera our team used to film our interview with Michelle Obama), but those are unreasonably expensive for anyone without a professional budget. Meanwhile, the low-end of the 360-degree camera market is growing thanks to companies like Samsung and Ricoh (and, soon, Nikon and GoPro), but those cameras don't offer live-streaming and shoot poor quality footage when compared to higher-end camera rigs.
So the VideoStitch team decided to plug this gap in the market by building their own solution. The result is the Orah 4i, a tiny four-camera rig that is cheaper and simpler to operate than anything offered by VideoStitch's competition.
The Orah 4i camera rig is pretty unremarkable to look at, which is a good thing — you don't want your subjects to be distracted by the camera when you're filming immersive content. VideoStitch's rig is much less intimidating and intrusive than the big, bulky ones made by high-end VR capture companies. Four f2.0 fisheye lenses poke out of the dark gray aluminum housing, and a standard tripod mount can be found on the bottom. Open up that housing and you wouldn't find much there either. Each of those lenses is attached to a Sony Exmor image sensor, and there are two Ambarella video chips, and four "ambisonic" microphones for recording 360-degree audio.
The Orah 4i is very inconspicuous
Adding to the camera's inconspicuous nature is the fact that it only needs one cord to operate. VideoStitch has placed all the processing components (an Intel CPU, Nvidia GPU, and a 120GB SSD) in what the company calls a "stitching box," which the Orah 4i connects to via an Ethernet cable. That cable transmits data and provides power to the camera, and the box can either sit under the tripod or be placed as far away as necessary, provided you have an Ethernet cord that's long enough.
The stitching box needs to be plugged in for the rig to work, but the overall package is still much simpler than just about anything else you could buy or rent at the moment. Doornink says you could even plug the stitching box into a small battery if you want the Orah 4i to be truly mobile.
Doornink and VideoStitch CEO Nicolas Burtey came to The Verge's office last week to give me a demo of the Orah 4i. In the time it took Doornink to introduce himself and explain the camera, Burtey had already set everything up. The duo were even carrying all the necessary equipment in just a few small backpacks. I strapped on the Gear VR that Burtey handed to me, and the camera was already streaming footage to the headset. And that footage looked excellent, despite that I was watching it on an older Galaxy Note 4 version of the Gear VR and that the camera was filming in the awful overhead lighting of one of our meeting rooms.
Most importantly, the video quality is solid
Burtey also let me watch a stream from a camera that was set up in VideoStitch's San Francisco office. It wasn't quite as clear as the footage from the camera that was set up a few feet from me, but it still looked as good (or better) than any other live-streamed 360-degree footage that I've seen. I wasn't able to identify any stitching lines in either video, too, which is no surprise given the company's history.
The simplicity and quality of the Orah 4i would be useless if the price wasn't competitive, but for the rest of April, VideoStitch is selling the whole setup for $1,800. Doornink says the price will gradually increase over the summer until the rig starts shipping in August. At that point, the final retail price will be $3,600. That's not necessarily cheap, but contrasted with the sticker price of most professional rigs (which run in the tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars) and it seems especially affordable.
Besides, Burtey and Doornink say, the Orah 4i isn't meant to replace those professional camera rigs. They hope that the price and simplicity will appeal to prosumers — small production houses or content studios, educational institutions, or even journalists. And if that winds up being the case, VideoStitch might just help live-streaming catch up to the rest of the VR industry.