Delivering video on the web generally bifurcates into two realms: synchronous and asynchronous, also sometimes called live and on-demand. By and large, when you’re watching video online, you’re watching asynchronous or on-demand video. This is video that was previously recorded and then uploaded for you to watch at your leisure, be it a vlog on YouTube or a movie on Netflix. Synchronous video, which we will call live video for the sake of brevity, requires an entirely separate and complex set of processes in order to make happen. But with the growing popularity of live video, it’s becoming easier to do. Platforms for live streaming have existed to some degree for years but the complexity of it made them costly and kept it out of reach of most people. This was often compounded by the need to use Flash for live streaming, long after most on-demand video had moved to simpler HTML5 video delivery. Fortunately, YouTube implemented live streaming on their platform some years ago, and Facebook followed suit shortly thereafter. This vastly simplified the delivery of live video and opened it to the masses.
The next horizon in live video, though, recently became the live streaming of 360 video. This is completely spherical video which allows the video to “look around” a venue, either by clicking and dragging on the video window, moving around their mobile device, or through the use of VR goggles. As with the advent of live streaming in the past, the advent of 360 live streaming introduced a new layer of complexity. You need a number of elements for 360 live streaming that different from regular live streaming. For instance, you need a platform that will deliver 360 video properly and until recently that was limited to YouTube alone, although Facebook has recently joined the market. You also need special equipment. This can be a camera with two – or more – lenses pointed in opposite directions, or an array of cameras mounted in spherical fashion. And you need software than can interpret this type of video and deliver it to your platform of choice.
For about a year now, the barebones entry-level option for live streaming in 360 was a Ricoh Theta S camera (which you can purchase for about $200), plugged into a computer running Open Broadcast Software, which then connects to YouTube for streaming. The weak link in this setup is the Theta S which, while technically a HD camera, processes 360 video very poorly. Furthermore, all 360 streaming platforms (namely, YouTube and Facebook) further degrade image quality as they deliver your video. If you want to stream anything more than a blurry image, you need to step up to a 4K 360 camera. Here’s where things get complicated.
While many cameras will record 4K 360 video, the trick is to find something that will live stream it as well. And while some will live stream, most of these are designed to be operated over a smartphone which means you can’t really expect a constant, reliable, high image quality. We’re seeking a 4K 360 camera that can live stream and will do so either connected to a network over Ethernet, or connected (via USB, HDMI, etc.) to a computer which is itself connected to a network over Ethernet.
High end production units such as the Nokia OZO, Insta360 Pro, Orah, or Z CAM S1 sell for thousands – or tens-of-thousands – of dollars and are simply non-starters despite probably being better suited to our needs than most low cost consumer options.
Here’s a sampling of more affordable options…
Nikon KeyMission 360: This is an action camera in the same vein as a GoPro. It’s shock proof and includes image stabilization. It can do 4K recording but it’s unclear if you can connect it directly to a computer nor is it clear that you can live stream from it. It can be purchased for about $500.
Kodak PIXPRO SP360 4K Dual Pro Pack VR Camera: To be clear, this is a bundle with two cameras mounted together with a special bracket and synced through a special remote control. It seems intentionally designed to be as complex as possible, with no indication that it can stream live video. The price, at over $600, indicates that you’re buying 2 cameras in this bundle.
Garmin Virb 360: As with the previous cameras on this list, the Garmin – best known for making GPS devices – is a blocky action camera probably not suited for live streaming. It carries weird specs such as “5.7K/30fps unstitched and 4K/30fps with in-camera stitching”. Nonsense like that doesn’t help. On the bright side, it *CAN* live stream, but only from iOS devices. At nearly $800, it relies heavily on bells and whistles such as the enhanced unstitched resolution, image stabilization, and voice controls.
Samsung Gear 360: The latest version of the Samsung Gear is 4K capable. It can stream, but only at 2K resolution and only via a Samsung Galaxy phone. You can currently buy it for under $200.
IC Real Tech ALLie: Designed more as a security and surveillance camera, it’s clear that the ALLie can stream from both iOS and Android devices and, after some investigation, we discovered it could also stream from MacOS and Windows. Its claims to being 4K capable are questionable but when dealing with spherical video, the old norms (HD = 1920×1080, 4K = 3840×2160) go out the window. This camera alleges it can stream “2048×2048” at 20fps. Not the best resolutions of the cameras listed, but it seems – at least – very confident that it can stream live video. And it’s about $100.
Clearly, for $100, the ALLie wasn’t much of a gamble so we committed to testing this camera to see what it could do. More on the ALLie in our next installment.