360-degree cameras are suddenly everywhere, with brands like Garmin, Samsung and, most recently, GoPro all launching dual lens cameras that record video for watching on virtual reality headsets.
Almost all new models capture in 4K resolution. The Insta360 One does too, but it is the only camera that claims to record videos in “bullet time” (think slow-motion scenes from The Matrix and Inception).
The Insta360 One produces this effect by capturing in 120 frames per second, which is the minimum you need to create a slow motion shot.
It’s easy enough to do – you press the standby button three times and literally just swing the camera around your head – but the real problem (which arguably applies to the 360-degree format in general) isn’t how it works, but what to use it for.
When did you last wish you could have captured a moment in bullet time? Probably not too recently. Bear in mind you also have to be somewhere very exciting or picturesque, and either alone or with people shorter than you – you have to swing the Insta360 One around your head, after all. Meanwhile, the finished slow-motion videos always have the user in the centre holding one arm up, which is an odd look.
Luckily, there’s a lot more to the Insta360 One than this technically impressive novelty mode.
It is most at home when attached to an iPhone (an Android version is on the way). Click the bottom of the waterproof, 82g device and out pops an Apple Lightning connector. Attach it to bottom of an iPhone and turn the device upside down, and the Insta360 One comes to life, loading its own app.
The most obvious feature the camera has that most of its competitors lack is the ability to take high-resolution stills. While most 360-degree cameras can take images of around one or two megapixels, the Insta360 One captures in impressive 24-megapixel resolution. It even creates RAW files for processing in Photoshop or similar applications (though they can only be handled via Insta360’s free desktop PC software).
Video results are also impressive. The image stabilisation tech could be better, but it avoids the jerky effect that most 360-degree cameras create, and results are never physically difficult to watch.
It is also possible to control the Insta360 One remotely using the app over Bluetooth, or you can just use it as a stand-alone camera (as with the bullet-time feature), using a series of single, double or triple taps according to what you want it to do (photo, video or bullet time respectively).
It has even got a standard tripod thread, so you can easily place it in the middle of a shopping centre, a skateboard park or a temple and leave it alone to capture atmospheric time-lapse videos while you stand behind something and control it from the app. That same tripod thread also means you can use it with selfie sticks, bicycle mounts and even drones.
Filming in 360 degrees is still something of a novelty, and certainly not for everyone. However, there is another feature on this camera that could stretch its appeal much further than to just videographers who want to experiment with the new format.
Called “FreeCapture”, this mode essentially allows the user to produce a spherical video that can later be edited down to a regular flat, fixed-frame video. It’s really easy to do, even on the phone; you can manually frame it, or engage “SmartTrack” around a specific person or object for auto-cropping, then download it to your camera roll. You can even add a music soundtrack, which makes up for the camera’s so-so microphone.
SmartTrack is useful for quickly editing, though if your subject is moving in the original footage, it does introduce a jerkiness to the final cropped video. The stitch line between images from the two lenses is barely noticeable, though the distortion caused by their fish-eye design does make it tricky to zoom in on anything far away.
It’s not exactly pin-sharp either; this might be a 4K camera, but those pixels are spread over a very large area. The results, however, are adequate for sharing online, and it’s hard to complain about the core quality of the Insta360 One’s images, which have plenty more colour and contrast than cheaper 360-degree cameras. The caveat is that it really has to be used outdoors; those fish-eye lenses desperately need natural light.
The 360-degree trend is growing gradually, and what is popular and what isn’t – and whether 360 is even necessary – is still to be seen. If VR headsets ever really catch on, 360-degree cameras like the Insta360 One will surely spread quickly, which is probably why every new product seems to have a wacky new feature on it.
The Insta360 One – which picked up a CES Innovation Award this month – has plenty of such features, some of which may define the genre (FreeCapture), some that are a little early to the game (such as live-streaming to YouTube, Facebook Live and Periscope), and others that may disappear forever (bullet time).
However, with its core quality, easy-to-use design and range of control options that mean it can be used for several purposes, the Insta360 One is the most impressive 360-degree all-rounder yet.