Why 360-degree cameras have become 2016’s must-have travel accessories

Put away your selfie stick and forget about virtual reality; why 360-degree shooting is this year’s hottest trend

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 5:01pm

Travel photographers and videographers are going crazy about 360-degree photos and video that let you look in any direction. Cameras and phones capable of shooting in 360 degrees are everywhere, Facebook now supports 360-degree uploads, and YouTube is promising live 360-degree streaming video with “spatial audio” from music concerts. Have travellers, photographers and TV producers found a new way to tell their stories?

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Capturing real experiences

“The real value with 360-degree video is the ability to capture a real travel experience and share it with the world,” says TV producer Daniel Bury, who is filming the world’s first 360-degree virtual reality TV travel documentary called 360 Dreams (360dreams.tv).

He’s already captured hot air ballooning over Bagan, Myanmar and paragliding over the Himalayas in Nepal, though he insists 360-degree video isn’t just about “big” experiences. Bury has also captured real life, such as temporary homes in the earthquake epicentre of Gorkha, Nepal, and in Myanmar, pro-democracy revolutionaries and poets at underground political poetry readings in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, and even a funeral.

Power to the people

The wraparound images available on Google Street View are already helping travellers research destinations in ever more detail, so much so that some consider 360-degree images a potential threat to travel agents.

“The impact on the travel industry is huge as the prospects of improving 360-degree virtual reality technology means that travellers have more ways of being engaged, and being more immersed in the virtual experience,” says Rey Ong, managing partner at Convertical (aerialphotography.hk) in Wan Chai, which produces aerial photography and 360-degree panoramic tours using the GoPro Spherical and the Kodak Dual Pro cameras.

His colleague Kurt Tsui adds that it could even make experts of us all: “Everyone can be a tour guide, if they are willing to spend time on the internet to look for the VR information and prepare. Travellers do not need advice from travel agents any more.”

New platform

Travel agents might be running scared, but for now 360-degree videos are proving an exciting new platform for the travel industry as a whole. Hong Kong’s new millennial-focused iClub Hotels chain (iclub-hotels.com) ran a 360-degree video and photo competition in April, allowing its guests to borrow a Ricoh Theta S 360-degree camera to capture moments around its hotels in Wan Chai, Sheung Wan and Fortress Hill.

“360-degree photos and drones are out there, but they haven’t been used much for advertising campaigns,” says Wayne Hu, vice-president of strategic marketing at Regal Hotels, which operates iClub. “360-degree photos speak a lot about whatever subject you’re taking, and since a lot of hotel photos look the same, we wanted a different perspective.”

The competition received 2,000 submissions and 14,000 followers on Facebook. iClub even let me use its camera to shoot some 360-degree photos in Man Mo Temple and Stanley.

Man Mo Temple in Hong Hong - my first attempt at a 360 photo, thanks for the loan of the Ricoh camera #iclubhotels #shootforiclub #theta360 #theta360uk - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Australia in 360 degrees

Meanwhile, over two weekends in late April and May, Tourism Australia became the first tourism board in Hong Kong to use virtual reality to inspire travellers. Set up in locations at Central, Wan Chai, Sai Kung and Causeway Bay, passers-by got to don a VR headset to explore epic 360-degree views of the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Hamilton Island, with the tag-line “Australia is a place you feel”. The same material has been made available via the Australia in 360 app, which requires Google Cardboard to view on a phone.

Filming in 360 degrees

Although 360-degree video offers an enveloping experience especially to anyone viewing the results using a VR headset, it’s actually not intrusive at all to film with. In fact, production using Bury’s special lens attached to a modified camera is pretty much “set and forget”. “My 360-degree cameras are inconspicuous because I am not pointing a camera at anyone,” says Bury, who uses various rigs, relying on an ultrawide fisheye camera for shots of people close by. Sometimes the 360-degree footage is native, other times images are stitched together later using the Autopano panorama software. “I set the 360-degree camera down and people forget about it, and I’m able to capture these powerful experiences in a very organic way … it’s so exciting and I know I am on to something that is very big.”

The big picture

360-degree storytelling is also being experimented with by broadcasters as a way of showing what it’s really like where the journalist is reporting from. Examples include Edward Miller and Immersiv.ly’s Hong Kong Unrest 360° documentary and an immersive 360-degree news report by Britain’s Sky News from a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, where two boats of refugees from Syria were arriving on the southern shores of the European Union. “360-degree does enhance the experience, and we’re seeing VR tasters for marketing purposes, but also for news coverage,” says Paul Gray, principal analyst at IHS, speaking at April’s CE China exhibition in Shenzhen. “Personally I find it one of the most moving pieces of news coverage, and watching it on a VR headset is very different from watching it on TV – it’s much, much more personal.”

Watching in the round

Although ‪360-degree cameras such as the Ricoh Theta S (HK$3,290, Broadway, Times Square, Causeway Bay, tel: 2506 0228) and the about-to-be-launched LG 360 (around HK$1,900) make shooting in ‪360-degrees no problem, it’s not easy to watch 360-degree content.

Virtual reality headsets such as the Oculas Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear 360 are yet to hit the mainstream (if you want to have a go, visit the JetOne Motion lab in three locations in Hong Kong, though a low-cost alternative for Android phone owners is to get a lightweight Google Cardboard headset and insert any phone playing the 360Video channel on the YouTube app.

However, the easiest way is via the Facebook app on any phone, where you can tilt the screen to move around the image. That’s not ideal.

“Facebook 360 videos are short experiences, much like when film was first born at the turn of the 20th century when theatres played short videos of trains,” says Bury, who’s looking forward to when the likes of Netflix and National Geographic jump aboard the 360-degree bandwagon.

Back to basics

Though the 360-degree trend is almost entirely about new technology and camera lenses, filming techniques are so simple that those who are experimenting with it have found that it adds a new natural freedom to travelling.

“The fact that I am always on the lookout for the most dynamic content to capture has made me way more adventurous than usual,” says Bury, who recently took an “insane” plane up to Rara in Nepal, and hitchhiked down the Himalayas in a “death trap” truck.

“I don’t think I would have ever done any of this if I wasn’t going out of my way to capture the craziest travel experience possible in 360-degree video,” he adds.

Perhaps that’s the real reason why ‪360-degree cameras are becoming 2016’s hottest travel accessory.