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Circuit Breaker

FrontRow is another high-end take on the idea of a wearable camera

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A $399 millstone of potential content around your neck

Over the last few years, our smartphones have become the cameras we use most — even for photographers. But that hasn’t stopped companies big and small from trying to upset the order of things. Ubiquiti Labs — a new part of Ubiquiti Networks, which has (until now) mostly made mesh Wi-Fi products — is the latest to try to take the simplicity and, well, ubiquity of “mobile photography” to the next level with a new $399 wearable camera called FrontRow.

FrontRow is actually two cameras — one on the “back” that uses a 8-megapixel sensor, and one on the “front” that’s just 5 megapixels — plus a 2-inch circular LCD touchscreen. This is all packed into a pendant the size of a half-dollar coin. (Or smaller than a fidget spinner, if you don’t get that reference.) It shoots 1080p video, and will even live stream to Facebook or YouTube for up to two hours. Basically, the specs are there, and the pictures look good enough for something competing with your smartphone.

FrontRow is meant to be worn around your neck, with the rear camera at or around chest height, facing out. This way, you can quickly grab it and snap a photo or video whenever you see something you deem picture-worthy. A connector at the top of the device can be swapped to accommodate other form factors, like a kickstand, or even a dashboard mount. The camera goes on sale today and starts shipping in a few weeks.

I got to spend a few minutes with what was basically the final production version of FrontRow back in June. I can’t say it’s something I’d ever want to buy — especially at that price point — but it is wonderfully slick. The touchscreen’s responsiveness is snappy, and the motion of the menus is fluid. Those menus are bubbly in a way that’s reminiscent of webOS, even if it’s Android under the hood. The device runs what Ubiquiti calls “FrontRow OS,” which has been pared way down from a full, typical Android-style interface.

“That's a big thing that we've had to take into consideration, because obviously running Android, we could we have the ability to put a lot of Android Wear apps with hardly any tweaking,” Joe Santucci, the product director for Ubiquiti Networks, told me back in June. “So we're going out with a very basic set of use cases where we're just focusing on the content capturing and live streaming and we're going to be very measured with how we roll things out there.”

Beyond videos and photos, that basic set of use cases includes what the company is calling (surprise!) “story” mode. In this mode, the camera collects photos and videos for up to 12 hours (it has a standby time of 70 hours, Santucci says) and edits them together into a final time lapse-style video. At launch, it also has Dropbox integration and a Spotify app.

The story mode is clever, in that it uses sensor data and other information to discard the worst shots across that time period. (You can also pluck a photo or video out of the batch if you want to save a particular one, and Santucci says you can interrupt it to shoot other media and story mode will pick right back up when you’re done.) The resulting video will eventually seamlessly transfer to your phone, just like the individual photos and videos you shoot.

Of course, the two bets Ubiquiti Labs is making with story mode — and FrontRow in general, in many ways — is that people will find sustained activities that they always want to be capturing, and that they’ll want to wear the camera at all times. I found the metal-and-glass construction very pleasant, and at 55 grams it felt light enough to forget it was around your neck. Combine that with the software, which felt fast and easy enough, and my brief time with the device at least left me wanting more.

But Ubiquiti needs a stronger sales pitch than that. Santucci’s betting on one we hear a lot with consumer tech these days — FrontRow will help you disconnect from your phone.

“Millennials are so rooted to experiences, and spending their money on those experiences, and they love to capture them,” Santucci says. “But every time you take your phone out of your pocket you've got five notifications, and it really mentally kind of removes you from this situation. So we wanted to have something that was really accessible that could also document an entire day, an entire experience, a full Coachella day, a full day in a new city — with no video editing.”

The last five to 10 years has not been kind to wearable cameras — even ones with premium materials or high-touch design have failed miserably. There’s just something inherent about the idea that never seems to click. We’ve been down this road before.

But if Ubiquiti can find a niche where the idea really makes sense — perhaps at music festivals, or with tourism — FrontRow seems like a sharp enough device that the people would enjoy using it. For the rest of us, our smartphones will do just fine.

Update August 15th, 9:24AM ET: Ubiquiti provided the wrong image sensor specs, as the cameras are 8- and 5-megapixels. The post has been updated to correct this.