GoPro has high hopes for its first 360-degree camera, the Fusion ($699.99). CEO Nick Woodman describes it as the most versatile creative tool ever created. We’re not going to go that far, and you have to remember that Woodman is enthusiastic about, well, everything. The Fusion sets itself apart from other 360 cameras thanks to high-resolution capture (5.2K) and software that leverages those extra pixels to pan, zoom, and display spherical video in a traditional frame. GoPro calls this OverCapture. It’s currently limited to desktop editing platforms—mobile users will have to wait until next year. Because of this we’re not giving the Fusion a rating at this time.
The Fusion takes it aesthetic cues from the Hero5 and Hero6. It’s finished in the same two-tone dark gray look. The outer material feels the same too, a hard rubber shell that withstands drops and the rugged treatment that action cams are often subjected to. The Fusion is waterproof to 16 feet (5 meters).
The camera measures 3.5 by 3.0 by 1.0 inches (HWD) and weighs 8.0 ounces. There are two lenses, one on the front and another on the rear, slightly offset from each other to improve stitch quality. Physical controls are limited to Power/Mode and Record buttons. You can change camera settings using the two to navigate the menu, which is displayed on a small front monochrome LCD, or connect the Fusion to your phone and change settings via the GoPro app, available for Android and iOS.
The Fusion doesn’t have a hard glass cover over its lens like the Hero6, though. Each of its lenses needs to see slightly behind themselves. The fish-eye nature doesn’t lend itself to extra protection. That said, I didn’t try to scratch the lens, but I haven’t been overly careful with the camera either. A soft lens cloth does a fine job getting rid of smudges, and I reached for a disposable cleaning wipe after one of the family dogs licked the lens. GoPro does warn that scratches can happen, and includes a protective case with a soft inner lining to use for storage and transport.
It ships with a standard GoPro mount installed on the body. It’s removable, and when it’s off the Fusion can sit up on its own on a flat surface. GoPro also bundles a selfie stick/tripod combination with the camera, which is helpful. It lets you hold the Fusion farther away from your person when shooting, and set it up on its own so you can roll footage to stay out of a shot.
There are a couple of doors on the body. One hides the USB-C port, which is used for data transfer and charging. Another opens to reveal the removable battery and memory card slots. The Fusion requires you to use two microSD cards, one for each lens. You’ll want to use cards with a Class 10 or UHS-I speed rating at a minimum, and we recommend using cards of matched speed and capacity to ensure that there are no hiccups during recording.
The removable battery is a higher capacity than you get with a Hero camera. We started at a full charge and ran it down to about 50 percent after recording 50 minutes of continuous 5.2K video. That just about filled dual 32GB cards, so you’ll want to invest in larger capacities if you want to take full advantage of the 100-minute battery life.
I noticed that the Fusion gets very, very warm when recording longer clips. I was recording test footage in a room temperature office, and the camera did not overheat to the point where it stopped recording. But if you’re recording footage in very hot environments, be aware of just how warm the camera gets. We’ll run some more long clip trials when we’re able to get the camera into warmer surroundings—the northeast US in December isn’t conducive to making cameras overheat.
GoPro offers a robust phone- and tablet-based editing application for its Hero action cameras. And it promises to do the same with Fusion. It’s just not ready yet. The GoPro app supports remote control, with a live feed from the Fusion’s lenses, for video, stills, and time-lapse. I found it especially useful for still capture, as there’s no self-timer option. Using the remote is the only way to stay out of the shot.
But when you move beyond remote control, the mobile software experience underwhelms. GoPro knows this—the company is up front that it’s simply not finished. You do have some basic tools available with the Fusion and app. You can transfer video and images to your phone for trimming and upload to YouTube (for videos of any length) and Facebook (for 30-second videos and images). You can’t save either to your camera roll, and video stitching is currently limited to 4K quality, without stabilization. The phone-stitched footage doesn’t look nearly as good as what the desktop software delivers.
GoPro is aiming for an early 2018 launch of improved mobile tools for the Fusion. This will include OverCapture, which is what the company is calling its zooming and panning tools that set the Fusion apart in a crowded 360-degree camera market.
Desktop editing tools, available for Mac and Windows system, include a pair of GoPro apps—Fusion Studio and VR Player—and a few plug-ins for Adobe Premiere Pro CC. And you do need Premiere Pro if you want to get the most out of Fusion right now. It’s not optional.
But before you work with footage in Premiere Pro you need to stitch it together. That’s where Fusion Studio comes into play. It recognizes both the front and rear camera views captured by the Fusion and combines them into an equirectangular projection that’s suitable for editing and uploading to hosting services that accept 360-degree video.
You have a few options for output—H.264 if you want to downsize footage to 4K, or CineForm 422 and Apple ProRes 422 for 5.2K. There are presets available that tune output for different purposes—Editing, Facebook, Vimeo, and YouTube. You can manually set the video resolution (5.2K, 4K, 3K, 2K) and choose between stereo or 360-degree directional audio. You can also enable stabilization when stitching footage, and you should. Despite being labeled as beta, it’s staggeringly effective. (More on that later.)
There is also an OverCapture option in Fusion Studio. It’s pretty limited—you can change the field of view of a clip and present it in a fish-eye or Little Planet projection, but it’s locked in for the duration of the clip. You can clone and trim clips to your heart’s content, creating several views from a single piece of footage, but animated movements using keyframes isn’t an option.
That’s where the Premiere Pro plugins come in. Nestled in the Video Effects panel, under the GoPro VR heading, are Horizon, Layers, and Reframe. Horizon is useful if you simply want to make sure that your 360-degree video is centered and shows a straight horizon.
For best results in straightening footage you’ll want to keep your eyes locked on the GoPro VR Player window that launches automatically along with Premiere Pro. It simulates the view of a VR headset, and it’s easier to get a straight horizon using that as a guide than Premiere Pro’s preview window.
Layers is used to add text titles to video. Premiere has this feature built in, but using the GoPro distorts them so they’ll look correct when displayed in a VR headset or player.
Reframe is where the magic happens. It’s here you’ll be able to zoom in and out of footage, transitioning from tight framing to an all-encompassing Little Planet look. And, by using keyframes, you can animate the movements. Set your field of view at one frame, enable animation for the effect you want to adjust, move down the timeline to another point, and make a change. Premiere Pro will smoothly animate the motion from start to finish.
I’ve only just begun to work with Reframe, but found it to be very easy to use after a few minutes of fumbling around a few tutorials. And I’m not nearly as comfortable in Premiere Pro as a I am in Lightroom or Photoshop—if you’re intimately familiar with Adobe’s video editing suite, you’ll pick it up in a snap.
Regardless of experience level, it is going to take some time to get results that are dramatic and compelling, like you see in GoPro’s marketing footage. Adding some other tools native to Premiere Pro, like the ability to speed up or slow down your footage, in conjunction with the Reframe animation, will help to turn heads.
High Octane Computing
Working with the footage at its highest resolution is demanding. My 2013 MacBook Pro choked on playback within Fusion Studio. A 2015 Retina iMac, powered by a 3.5GHz Core i5 and loaded with 16GB of memory and Radeon Pro 580 graphics, took its sweet time stitching footage—30 minutes per 1 minute of stabilized CineForm 422 5.2K video—and Premiere Pro estimated that it would take 5 hours to output a 5-minute 5.2K clip using HEVC compression and a 50Mbps bit rate, with quality set to High. (The Highest quality setting estimated 30 hours.)
I had better luck with a more modern system. A 2017 Retina iMac, powered by a 4.2GHz i7 CPU, also with 16GB of RAM, and more modern Radeon R9 M290X graphics, stitched video at a rate of 1 minute of footage every 5.5 minutes of CPU time. Exporting the same video clip at the same HEVC settings in Premiere Pro took about 3.5 hours. Thankfully both iMacs were able to play back the video without stuttering and stopping during editing, which is not the case with the aging laptop.
You’ll want more than consumer-level specs in your editing system to handle the Fusion’s video. Also be sure to invest in some big hard drives. Each minute of stitched CineForm 422 footage at 5.2K takes up about 4.5GB of space.
Video and Image Quality
The Fusion sets itself apart from many other 360-degree cameras with its resolution. While we’ve seen a large swath recording at 4K, including the Ricoh Theta V and Nikon KeyMission 360, GoPro went for 5.2K, with a 30fps capture rate and 60Mbps compression rate.
Each lens picks up nearly 4K of resolution (7MP), but of course, there’s overlap and black space around the circular image projected onto the rectangular image sensor. When stitched video is 5.2K—12.5MP. Compare that with the Samsung Gear 360, which stitches together video that’s 4K—8.4MP per frame. The Fusion has nearly a 50 percent advantage in pixel count.
It’s the extra resolution that makes OverCapture something that’s a useful feature rather than a gimmick. The 4K Insta360 One has a similar (but not as robust in movement or animation) crop option, but its cropped footage looks awful. Its video doesn’t have enough oomph to handle it.
And it’s the extra resolution that makes vanilla 360 footage, without any sort of OverCapture effect, look noticeably better than 4K models. GoPro’s experience with video, and its ProTune system, which supports graded GoPro Color as well as a gradeable Flat profile, are also part of that. Of course, the Fusion isn’t the only high-resolution option out there. We’re currently working on reviews with a couple of cameras that shoot at 5.7K, slightly better the Fusion in resolution—the Garmin Virb ($800) and YI 360 ($500)—and will report on whether they better the Fusion once testing is finished.
We can’t discount stabilization. The Fusion’s is pretty fantastic. It’s not done in-camera, though. But if you enable the option in the Fusion Studio software you’re greeted with footage that is incredibly smooth and steady. It even passed our torture test, delivering stable video when mounted to the vibrating hood of a farm tractor. Other cameras we put to the same test, including the Ricoh Theta V, delivered noticeably shaky results.
Stitch quality is generally quite good. Objects very close to the lens are going to disappear, as will the included selfie stick when extended—that’s actually a nice feature, as it could be distracting in the frame. For the most part, as long as you don’t have something too close to the side of the camera, stitching is seamless. I did notice some exposure differences between the lenses in some test shots, mainly when the sun was high in the sky. On grayer days and under blue skies without as much sun showing in the shot, exposure was balanced. There are some issues with chromatic aberration, only noticeable at parts of the scene toward the periphery of lens coverage. We see this with most 360 cameras, as the extreme fish-eye lenses needed for the format suffer at the edges of coverage.
GoPro recommends a 1080p output resolution for OverCapture videos. The resulting footage looks quite good; better than I expected in fact. Close-up details are sharp, so if you’ve mounted the Fusion to a subject you’ll see clearly. Distant objects, which often appear blurry in 360-degree video, aren’t deadly crisp, but they’re not distractingly soft—just don’t expect to zoom in too far.
The storytelling potential is more intriguing to me than whether or not the branches of a distant tree look crisp. OverCapture lets you direct the action in the frame. You’ve got individual control over the field of view, yaw, pitch, and roll of the video, as well as the ability to control how smooth transitions are. You can set keyframes far apart for slow, smooth changes in field of view, or closer together for quicker, more jarring adjustments.
There’s another camera out there now with similar functionality and a working mobile app, the Rylo. It’s a bit less expensive at $500, and not ruggedized or waterproof without a case like the Fusion. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet, but its big disadvantage is in resolution—it only shoots in 4K, so I expect that its cropped video won’t look as good as the Fusion’s.
You can push the camera to 60fps, but at a big cost in resolution—it drops to 3K. That’s going to deliver video that looks soft to modern eyes. GoPro fans are used to high frame rates for insane slow-motion. We’ll need much, much more powerful mobile processors to get there at the resolution needed for crisp 360-degree capture. If you need to shoot at 120 or 240fps, get a Hero6 Black.
The Fusion also shoots photos, stitched at 16.6MP (5,760 by 2,880), in JPG or Raw format. We’re looking at it primarily as a video camera, but still quality looks solid to me. You can take advantage of the extra resolution offered by still imaging for video, as long as you’re a fan of time-lapse, and also animate time-lapses in the same way as standard video footage using the Premiere Pro plug-ins.
GoPro wasn’t nearly first to the 360-degree camera space, but the Fusion breathes some life into the medium. Yes, there’s the initial whizbang factor of 360, and VR in general, but is it sustainable? Like fads that have come and gone—3D, I’m looking at you—it’s wearing out its welcome. It’s cool that you can capture the entire world around you in a single frame. But what does it add?
In most situations, the answer is nothing. You’ll get a better story from traditional video. GoPro’s solution is a sound one. With the Fusion, shooting in 360 makes a bit more sense. Extreme sports fans, many of whom love the GoPro brand, want to record and share what they’re doing, but don’t have the ability to change the camera angle in the middle of a stunt. With the Fusion you gain the ability to zoom out to an otherworldly view, and move tight to capture a specific bit of action, with smooth, automated transitions.
But at the moment, it’s not the easiest thing to do. You need to have a license for Premiere Pro CC, know how to use the software, and have a computer that’s powerful enough to work with the footage. Those are hurdles that make the Fusion a tough sell for less-than-serious video creators at this time. I’m eager to see what GoPro can deliver for mobile OverCapture—if it’s able to create an experience that’s easy to use, the advantages of the Fusion will be more universal. We’ll circle back and rate the Fusion when the mobile app launches. Check back for the full review.