Today Facebook has followed through on its promise to open source the design of the Surround 360, its 17-camera array designed to capture video in 360 degrees. The company has also made available the stitching software used to piece together those types of videos. The goal is to encourage camera makers and videographers to shoot more footage in the experimental format — and, of course, share it on Facebook.
The Surround 360 was first announced during Facebook’s F8 developer conference back in April. At the time, the company said it was committed to making the hardware and software open-source, but it wasn’t quite ready to release it to the public. Now, if you head over to the Surround 360’s GitHub repository, you can check out the PDF that outlines all the materials you’ll need to make the camera and how it all fits together. The only thing that can’t be purchased off the shelf are the cone-shaped shells that encase the top and bottom. Facebook says you can take the schematics to a machinist and have them replicated.
The camera is designed to be modified and tinkered with, says Brian Cabral, a Facebook engineering director who led development of the Surround 360 at the company's Menlo Park headquarters. "There will be people who will try different configurations, trying to make it smaller, cheaper, lighter," he says. "Some people will go up, marking it bigger in resolution. That’s not only okay, but encouraged." At Facebook’s preferred configuration, the camera cost about $30,000 to build and, with the proper parts, can be constructed in about four hours.
Part of why the company wanted to open source the camera design is because its engineers think they’ve developed a unique combination of hardware and software not yet on the market. The Surround 360 can produce video with resolution up to 8K, and it uses two bottom-facing cameras to capture video without including the pole keeping it afloat. It also takes advantage of software improvements to ensure it can capture footage without including the pole that holds it afloat. Other tech companies have begun investing heavily in these types of cameras, including Nokia’s $60,000 Ozo and GoPro’s $15,000 Odyssey made in collaboration with Google. Facebook thinks its design is among the best available.
Of course, the company has a vested interest here. While not exactly disingenuous in its claims, the social network does clearly want to foster the creation and sharing of as many new video formats as it can. It doesn’t matter whether that video is live-streamed from the Facebook mobile app or carefully shot and edited with a $30,000 rig. Facebook wants it all.
The surround 360 costs $30,000 to build, and takes four hours to assemble
The better equipped creators are with hardware and software designed by and for Facebook’s platform, the better suited the company will be to host that video and spread it to the 1.65 billion people who log in every month. Facebook also owns Oculus VR, which develops the Rift virtual reality headset and partners with Samsung to sell the Gear VR headset. So those products only become more useful when consumers have more than tech demos and video games to play with.
Facebook has no interest in being a manufacturer, or making a profit off camera sales. "Our mission is to connect the world. Well, how do we do that?" Cabral explains. "One of those ways is with video and 360. So how do we get there?" In other words, the question is not whether Facebook will or won’t sell a piece of camera hardware. Rather, it’s "how to solve this problem the best way," he adds. By fostering development around 360-degree video and sharing its findings, Facebook hopes it can stay at the forefront of social video.