Your Next GoPro Could Fly and Shoot Virtual Reality

A elephant captured with 360H6 at the Living With Elephants Sanctuary, Botswana.
A elephant captured with 360H6 at the Living With Elephants Sanctuary, Botswana. Chris du Plessis of Photos of Africa

Last week, GoPro provided the best answer yet to the question surrounding Virtual Reality technologies like Oculus Rift: Why? The response comes in the form of a ball-shaped mount that holds six GoPro cameras and can will turn adventure video — or any live shot — easily into an immersive experience. Talk about taking your ski videos to the next level. 

The rig is designed to film in 360 degrees and, with the help of Google software, can stitch the videos together into a seamless VR experience. That’s not to say it’s cheap. The 6-camera rig itself costs around $500 and, with the addition of six Hero 4 cameras at $500 each, it adds up to some $3,500. Google and GoPro also announced a professional quality set-up that puts 16 Hero 4 cameras in a circle. They aren’t announcing the price of this rig, but the cameras alone cost $8,000. In other words, these are not for your your average adventurers.

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That’s not to say the rest of us won’t benefit. So far, filmmakers have only experimented with the medium, and usually with GoPro cameras. “When it comes to VR, our cameras are the de facto choice for spherical image capture for professionals,” says Charles Prober, senior vice president of software and services at GoPro. “You can pretty much name any current person or studio in VR and they have a spherical GoPro based rig.” Just as GoPro is already synonymous with action cams for consumers, the company has planted its flag in VR production. 

This is good news for Virtual Reality, and anyone hoping to experience it. Gaming alone might be enough to keep the Oculus Rift and its competitors afloat as wacky, niche-market peripherals, but not as the next big thing in entertainment. And the footage captured by those spherical rigs is too distorted to provide a sense of truly realistic, you-are-there VR. The more dominant GoPro is in virtual reality capture, the more likely the technology will live up to its potential.

Last week’s other major announcement from GoPro was the planned release of the company’s first drone, sometime in 2016. GoPro won’t release any details, but is calling this bot a “quad,” short for quadcopter (shying away from the term “drone” and it’s many negative associations). GoPro may be late to the party, but this isn’t the company’s first drone rodeo. According to Prober, most of the UAVs flown by filmmakers use GoPros. And this September, 3D Robotics is launching the Solo, a quadcopter that’s specifically optimized for GoPro cameras. In a pinch, the drone can power the action camera from its own battery. But don’t confuse GoPro’s drone plans with its VR strategy. Most quadcopters carry meager payloads, and have to be fairly robust to mount even a single camera and motorized, remote-controllable gimbal. With just four rotors to work with, six cameras (or more) would never get off the ground. When Patron recently created a VR tour of its agave field and distillery in Jalisco, Mexico, it used a hefty six-rotor drone to haul seven GoPros.

If GoPro’s new products are any indication, there’s no single future for action cameras. Rather, there are two parallel tracks. For consumers, there will be more opportunities to capture your own aerial, non-VR footage, using more capable drones. For professionals, though, the action camera is already becoming the backbone of VR capture, and GoPro’s new rig appears to be the state of the art in immersive footage. These paths will intersect, to a point, as filmmakers continue to attach spherical rigs to drones too expensive for consumers to consider buying. But to get GoPro’s 16-camera rig into the sky, you’d need a helicopter, piloted by a human. In other words, to get the most out of VR, you need money to burn. And if there’s one thing that Hollywood has experience with, it’s setting vast amounts of cash on fire, for our collective amusement.