Are 360 Cameras The Next Step In Smartphone Photography?

The technology boom has been largely pushed forward by the advent of personal computing, which has in turn inspired a revolution focused on making smaller machines do greater things. The cross section is vast: the ways in which we consume media, listen to music, communicate with each other… a great many mediums have been altered largely by advancements in the means. Smartphones have led the charge for the better part of the last decade, and in doing so have sent a fissure through an entirely different industry: the camera market.

Mobiles get even smarter?

The maturation of camera phones hasn’t obliterated camera sales entirely—February 2017 saw an increase in camera sales, notable after a dip years prior—but it has certainly made a dent. A 2013 report found 4.3 billion mobile phone users in the world (with 5.2 billion mobile phones circulating). Of those phones, 83% have cameras, and of those 4.3 billion users, 90% has stated that they have only ever taken photos on a camera phone, meaning that the centuries-spanning art of photography is, for an entire generation, inherently tethered to technology that’s barely 20 years old.
Still, this era of “killing your darlings” brings with it gargantuan leaps forward, and cameras are no different. In fact, how we think of cameras has begun to fundamentally alter, cozying up with varied new developments ranging from augmented reality to three-dimensional photography. Yet none seem more exciting than the gradual legitimization of 360-degree photography. As budding technology gives us new agency, 360-degree photography allows us to better capture and produce our own high-quality video.
The use will vary from person to person, but their potential ubiquity will likely be due to their sheer potential for variety: filming a stunning sunset during a family trip, or the full breadth of a wedding backdrop; capturing a sports game with unnerving detail, or helping advance the tools of citizen journalism. 360-degree cameras have the potential to better represent the world as it is. POV (point-of-view) cameras have already begun proliferating sports such as Olympic swimming, and drone technology has allowed for more intuitive navigation, better capturing the energy inherent in a game. However, could 360-degree photography be the link between the everyman and the professional?

Get the whole picture

Companies like Rylo have thrown their hat in the game early. A new start-up staffed almost entirely by former Apple and Instagram employees, Rylo has launched a commercially available 360-degree camera that has some in the industry buzzing. It carries a steep but  standard price tag at $499, with simple design, easy-to-use software and quality results.
Whether the venture will pay off is hard to predict, as this is one of the first 360-degree cameras designed with ease and quick learning in mind. But they provide an interesting bridge to other mediums, like VR cameras. 360-degree cameras are two-dimensional images, still working within the restraint of the photographic image, but the panoramic effect has the ability to create a fuller immersive image, going beyond 2D details even while staying firmly in the second dimension. 360-degree spherical video is often assembled by editing software, flattened into an “equarectangular projection” using digital transmission or online streaming. It works much the way a print-out of a map does, unfolding a globe into a flattened map. It’s an almost antiquated way of taking an image in, or would be were it not for the technology required in making it a reality.

Reality, but not virtual

Still, virtual reality and 360-degree photography/video are radically different, tethered to the real world in vastly different ways. The concept of VR is nearing mass saturation, with most aware of its impending influence on technology, even if unclear on how exactly it will come to manifest. But 360-degree photography, while different—many experts are keen on making sure that the general public understand the difference between the two before investing in either—is still a bridge between two new radical forms of documentation that may change our relationship to both the medium and the world at large.