Saturday, July 2, 2016

360 4k video rendering speed test: the results will shock you!

Rendering 4k video, whether 360-degrees or not, is incredibly processor-intensive.  For example, Samsung recommends these specs for editing 360 4k video:

  • Processor: Intel Core i7 or AMD FX or faster
  • Graphics card: ATI / AMD: Radeon HD R5 series or above; NVIDIA: GeForcce GTS / GT series or above; Intel HD Graphics 5500 or above; 2 GB DDR RAM or above
  • RAM: 6 GB or above

At the time of this writing, a computer with specs like these is not cheap.  Videomaker's recommended PC build for a 4k editing PC costs about $4,000 as of February 2016.

But what if you could get pretty fast rendering speeds for a fraction of the cost?

I was slogging through with my laptop (i5-2450M, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 3000), taking as long as 8 minutes to render just 15 seconds of 4k 360 video.  Then I met Hammad Iqbal on Facebook, who told me about a fast but very inexpensive PC.

In the tech world, "fast" and "inexpensive" are usually mutually exclusive and the figures he gave me sounded to good to be true, but I thought it was worth a shot.  I got a PC with very similar specs to the one he suggested, and here are the results:

Indeed it was true: an old Dell Precision T3500 workstation (circa 2009) with a Xeon processor could render 4k video at very fast speeds --  12x faster than my laptop, and on eBay these old workstations are selling for only about $250!

The one I got had these specs:

  • Dell Precision T3500
  • Intel Xeon Quad Core 3.20GHz W3565
  • 15GB RAM
  • Hard Drive: 600GB
  • Graphics card: Radeon X300 (an old graphics card)
  • pre-installed with Windows 10 Pro

As shown in the video, it could render 360 4k video (3840 x 1920) at around 2.5 seconds per second of video!

Just be aware that workstations have more limited compatibility compared to a regular desktop, and because this one is quite old, it may be hard to find the right drivers to work with Windows 10.  In fact, in my case, the desktop I got doesn't have a Windows 10 driver for its graphics card, so I can't stitch 360 photos or videos on Action Director.  I plan to buy a newer graphics card that has a Windows 10 driver, such as the GeForce GTX 750 Ti which is reportedly compatible with the T3500, or possibly the Radeon RX 480 if it is compatible, so that I can reuse it in the future when I want to upgrade to a VR-ready PC.

Thanks again to Hammad for this awesome tip!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Celebrate Independence Day with VR Fireworks

To celebrate Independence Day in the US, there's a new Fireworks app for the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here) where you can watch fireworks over the Statue of Liberty with music in the background.  The app is by Presence Studios, developers of GrooVR, one of my favorite apps for showcasing the immersiveness of the Gear VR.

The Fireworks app is a simple simulated view of the Statue of Liberty from the New York Harbor.  As music plays, fireworks are launched in sync with the music. Unlike the moving perspective in some experiences in GrooVR, the view in Fireworks is from within a fairy small virtual area, so it will be pretty comfortable to view for almost anyone.

The Fireworks app is a free download from the Oculus store.

Happy Independence Day!

Photo Comparison between Ricoh Theta S, Samsung Gear 360 and LG 360 Cam

Malaysian photographer Chiewata Hmt posted a side-by-side comparison between photos from the three major consumer 360-degree cameras: the Ricoh Theta S (reviewed here), Samsung Gear 360 (reviewed here), and LG 360 Cam

Here is the link to the comparison:

I'm also working on a detailed direct photo comparison between the Theta S and the Gear 360.  I will be comparing sharpness, dynamic range, exposure latitude, chromatic aberration, flare, and other factors.  In the meantime, here is a video comparison between the Theta S, Gear 360, and Kodak SP 360 4k dual pro.

Notes on Blindness: a VR experience of what it's like to be blind

VR is a largely visual experience but a recently-released app for Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here) tries to show viewers what it's like to be blind.  Called Notes on Blindness, it is narrated by John Hull, a writer and theologian who gradually became totally blind.  As John loses his vision, he reflects thoughtfully on the experience of what it's like to be blind and how he perceives the world with his new condition. 

Viewers see a VR representation of John's experiences as he narrates them.  The images are computer-generated in realtime.

As you would expect, the audio plays a very important role, and the sound quality is amazing, especially on a headset.  Thunder, for example, sounds incredibly realistic.

Some scenes of Notes on Blindness are also interactive and use the Gear VR's controls.

Notes on Blindness is a thought-provoking VR experience that showcases the power of VR as a medium for building empathy.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Feature-length VR movie about Jesus

Production stills.  Source: Autumn VR

Many Christians have often wondered what it would have been like to live in Jesus' time.  Their wish will be virtually fulfilled. 

This Christmas, a 90-minute VR movie about Jesus will be released by Enzo Sisti, the executive producer of Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.  Called Jesus VR - the Story of Christ, the movie was filmed entirely in 4k 360-degrees, at the same location in Italy that was used for the filming of the Passion.

The movie will tell the entire gospel story, starting from Jesus' birth through his crucifixion and resurrection, and will include key moments such as his baptism at the Jordan river, the Wedding at Cana and the Sermon on the Mount.  "The viewers truly feel they are there with Jesus and his disciples," said director and producer David Hansen.

The movie will reportedly be available in all formats - Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here), Oculus Rift (previewed here), HTC Vive, and even the upcoming Playstation VR (previewed here).  One issue is the amount of space such a movie would take up (depending on the bitrate, a 4k 360 movie can take as much as 1 GB for 3 minutes).  I speculate that the movie might have to be downloaded in parts.

Official website here.

DEALS: $100 discount off Allie Home camera

ALLie Home camera is a fully spherical 360 camera for your home or business that can be used for 4k livestreaming 24/7.  To celebrate Independence Day, ALLie is offering a $100 discount from June 29 to July 5, 2016.  Just use the promo code: fireworks

Watch the 2016 Olympics in VR with Samsung Gear VR

The 2016 Olympics will be the first Olympic games to be broadcast in VR.  NBC will broadcast the Rio Olympics in VR on the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here).  The coverage will include the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as events such as gymnastics, beach volleyball, boxing, diving, fencing, and men's basketball.  To view the Olympics in VR, you will need to download the NBC Sports app.

$20,000 grand prize for best VR video in Zeality's 360 Shootout

The San Francisco 49ers and Zeality are organizing a contest to search for the best VR production crew, offering a grand prize of $20,000.  To join the contest, submit a 360/VR video with 1 to 5 minutes duration.  Five contestants will be chosen as finalists to compete in a two-day Shootout/Hackathon to produce the best Game Day 360°/VR video for The San Francisco 49ers.

Here is the official site.

You can now disable the vertical orientation sensor for 360 racing and other videos on the Ricoh Theta

The gyroscopic vertical orientation sensor on the Ricoh Theta and some 360 cameras is usually an essential tool to make sure the photo or video is easier to view.  Here is a sample when the automatic orientation is disabled:

Legoland airplane ride - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

As you can see, rotating the image is difficult.

However, sometimes you wouldn't want the orientation sensor.  For example, in this car racing video, you'll see that as the car makes hard turns, the gyro sensor responds and the screen tilts:

The vertical orientation could be toggled for photos but could not be disabled for videos.  Now, Ricoh has listened to its customers and added an option to disable the vertical orientation correction in videos.  The option is available only on the desktop Theta software.  When converting the movie, you can now select whether to turn off the slant top/bottom correction.

Add Interactive Links to Your Business' 360 Photos on SeekBeak

There are several social media platforms and image hosting services for your 360-degree photos.  SeekBeak wants to distinguish itself from the competition by enabling you to add interactive links to your 360-degree photos.

There are a variety of possible links:
  • "Display Text
  • Link to a URL
  • Send an Email
  • Playback Audio
  • Display an Image
  • Call a Phone
  • Embed 3rd party content
  • Create Virtual Tours
  • Automatic eCommerce Store"
After adding the interactive links, the 360 photo can then be embedded on your website.  Here is a sample.

Here is a video showing how it's used:

Unlike most of the other 360 platforms, SeekBeak is targeting businesses and is subscription based, with plans ranging from Basic ($14/month), Plus ($49/month), or Premium ($199/month), differentiated primarily by the number of photos you can post and the types of interactivity that are enabled. You can try it out with a 14-day free trial.

Kodak SP360 and SP360 4k Firmware Updates; HDMI output added

Kodak posted firmware updates for the SP360 and SP360 4k.

For the SP360, the changes are as follows:
"-Improves Procedures for Wi-Fi
-Adds EIS(Electronic Image Stabilization) in Round mode
-Fixes bugs"

For the SP360 4k, they've added HDMI output during 4K-recording.  The HDMI output can be used to watch the video on an HDMI monitor, to record the output using an external HDMI recorder, or possibly to live stream.

You can download the firmware updates here (click on the firmware tab).

Thanks to Markr041 for spotting this!

Add a 3D Firefly effect to Ricoh Theta Photos!

You can now add a 3D firefly effect to your Ricoh Theta photos on!  Just add the hashtag #firefly3d to your description.  Check out this cool sample from Ricoh!

This is the second 3D effect added by Ricoh.  The previous one was a cherry blossom effect.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Insta360 Nano: Android usage and other info

The Insta360 Nano, a 360-degree camera for the iPhone, launched yesterday in the US.  Here is a preview with sample photos and videos.  In the meantime, there are other interesting info about the Nano:

1. Insta360 made a dedicated page for the Nano (check it out - it's very polished).  The page also showed the parts of the Nano, including a Micro USB port in addition to the Lightning connector.  This facilitates transferring files to a desktop.

The parts diagram also says "Microphone jack" but the actual photo appears to show a microphone rather than a microphone jack)

2. The Insta360 Nano was designed for the iPhone but it may be possible to use it with Android.  The product page says that the Nano can be connected to "other smartphones" with a transfer cable.  This seems to mean that you can use the Nano by itself (without an iPhone) and then transfer the photos or videos from the Nano to your Android or other phone using the Micro USB port.  In fact, a micro USB cable is supplied with the package contents.
3. The app will allow sharing to Facebook and Twitter (strangely, no mention of sharing to YouTube).  Given that Twitter doesn't support 360 photos, it probably means you'll be sharing a cropped version or tiny planet version to Twitter. 

4.  The live streaming capability works with Facebook and YouTube.

​5. The parts list doesn't include a Micro SD card, so you may need to supply one.  It can accommodate up to 64GB.

6.  One of the possible holdups for the release is the Insta360 Nano app.  As of now, the app is not yet available on the App Store.  Apple does take a while to approve apps, so depending on when Insta360 submitted the app to Apple, it is possible the Nano might take longer than expected.  On the other hand, if it's the only holdup and it gets approved sooner than expected, the Nano might ship earlier than July 30.

7.  Amazon is the official preorder site for the Nano but the Nano is also available for preorder at Adorama and B&H Photo.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

TECHNIQUE: How to make a partial photosphere

Sometimes you want the VR effect of being able to look around, but you also want to limit the view to less than 360 degrees.  Here is a sample  (click to see the partial photosphere on Facebook):

The key to making this work is to modify the XMP Metadata so that the viewer software understands that the view is limited.  Here are some of the more important metadata for a photosphere (source here):

Here is one way to do a 180-degree photosphere that can be viewed on Facebook as a partial photosphere:

1.  Take a normal 360 photo.

2.  For a 180 photosphere, crop the equirectangular photo's width by 50%.  The resulting image will have an aspect ratio that is 1:1 (square).

3.  Edit the metadata using exiftool or other similar apps.  In my case, I used exiftoolgui.  Change the following parameters:

  • CroppedAreaImageWidthPixels: this should be the width of the new cropped image.  If you cropped half for a 180-view, change it to half of the original number.
  • CroppedAreaImageHeightPixels: this should be the height of the new cropped image.  If you cropped half for a 180-view, you don't need to change it.
  • CroppedAreaLeftPixels: this should be the imaginary distance (in pixels) from the left edge of the 360 panorama to the left edge of the partial panorama.  For a 180-degree view, this should be 1/4th of the original length.
  • CroppedAreaTopPixels: this should be the imaginary distance (in pixels) from the top edge of the 360 panorama to the top edge of the partial panorama.  For a 180-degree view, you don't need to change it.

4.  Post the image.  Some viewers such as Facebook will automatically limit the view to the cropped area.  Other viewers such as Google Photos will put the partial panorama in a black background.

Better stitching for Samsung Gear 360 with PTGui

The Samsung Gear 360 (reviewed here) is the most affordable 4k-capable 360 camera but it has some quirks. One issue is that there is sometimes a color difference between the lenses, which makes the stitch lime more visible.

Gear 360 shooter Joshua Teo Ch tried to remedy this issue by using a different stitching program. Instead of using the included Action Director software, he used PTGui.  

As you can see from the comparison above, PTGui does have a smoother blending between the two lenses, compared to Action Director.  Note: Joshua also applied HDR toning.  He suggested that if you want to do HDR toning, it should be done at the same time as the stitching for a smoother stitch.

Here are the steps Joshua used to stitch a photo with PTGui:

Insta360 Nano priced at $199 in the US; release date and new details available

You can now preorder the Insta360 Nano (previewed here), a fully spherical 360-degree camera for the iPhone, exclusively from Amazon:

The product page says the release date is July 30, 2016.

At $199, the Nano would be one of the most affordable fully spherical cameras, and would have a higher video resolution than the LG 360 Cam or the Ricoh Theta S (reviewed here).

Meanwhile, Insta360 posted a new product video that reveals new details about the Nano:

1.  Clamp accessory.  In the video, they attached the Insta360 Nano to a skateboard with a clamp-type accessory.  The clamp was able to keep the Insta360 attached even with a kickflip.

2.  Drone attachment.  They attached the Insta360 Nano to a Phantom 3 drone, although the video does not provide a clear view of what the accessory looks like, or how it will attach to the Phantom 3's camera and/or gimbal.

3.  Helmet attachment.  The video featured an accessory for attaching the Nano to a motorcycle / go kart helmet (which doesn't have holes on top).  It may attach to the helmet with a suction cup.

4. Tripod accessory.  There will be an accessory for attaching the Nano to a tripod or light stand.

5. Wireless live streaming.  We had known that the Nano had some type of live stream capability.  But in the video, we can see that the live stream is done seemingly without the Nano being attached to a computer, or even an iPhone.  It seems to suggest that the Nano can stream wirelessly.

6.  Facebook.  It appears that the Nano app supports posting to Facebook (see the Facebook logo).

7.  The Nano can be used horizontally.  This means that it will allow you to use many of your existing iPhone mounts and tripods (many of which position the iPhone horizontally).

8.  Cardboard viewer.  The video appears to confirm that the Nano will come with a Google Cardboard viewer.

Here is the video:

I preordered the Nano as well (on the same terms as everyone else) and will be posting a review.

Ricoh Theta S: a Long Term Review, plus 10 advantages over its competition in 2016

With my upcoming comparison between the Samsung Gear 360 (reviewed here) and the Ricoh Theta S, I thought it would be good to revisit the Theta with a long-term review.  I've had the Ricoh Theta S since launch (October 2015) and I still use it often.  This is an updated version of the review that I posted previously.  At the end of this review, I will also lay down what I believe are the Ricoh Theta's unique strengths compared to its newer competition.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Experiencing the Playstation VR (Updated!)

Among the three primary desktop-based VR systems, Playstation VR is the most affordable one and I got to try it out yesterday.  In this post, I'll discuss my first impressions vis-a-vis Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard.

Update: additional analysis re immersiveness (see highlighted portion at the end)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Preorder the Insta360 Nano on June 28!

Preorders for the Insta360 Nano (previewed here) will start on June 28 at 10am (not sure which time zone), on Amazon!

The Insta360 Nano is a 360-degree camera that attaches to the iPhone (Android version TBA) via the Lightning port, using your phone as a controller and live preview screen, and allowing you to share your 360 photos and videos very easily.

For sample photos, sample videos, and related posts, click here.