For the first time I had a contact with 360° photos in 2013 when I have bought my first smartphone: Google Nexus 4. Already back then Nexus’s camera had an option to create 360° photos. At this point, I thought it will be just a passing fashion and nothing else. The hype for so-called virtual reality came almost 2 years later when Google developed Cardboard google (extremely cheap and easy to assemble VR goggles made for Android apps) and it was already known that Steam, Oculus and HTC will produce their own VR headsets.
The problem is, that pictures taken by the single camera cannot be fully rendered as real VR panoramas. Actual VR has not only the information about head movement (so you can freely look around) but also about the distance between the observer and the object. To create a panorama with both information for VR you need to use a much more sophisticated algorithm and a lot of software. This procedure, called Photogrammetry is far more complicated for just a smartphone.
Anyway, going back to 360° photography, you can easily record 360° photos with your smartphone using Google Street View. The only problem is that single picture takes ~3 min because you have to record almost 30 images around you. During pictures recording your smartphone is also not very well positioned and this generates stitching artifacts which look ugly on the final picture – fragmented lines, moved clouds, etc. To eliminate stitching issues one can use the tripod with fixed camera and rotate the camera around or buy a panorama head for the tripod which can be used with DSLR camera. Professional camera and panorama head will generate the best final picture but at the same time is the least convenient set because it’s extremely bulky and heavy. Fortunately, nowadays many companies started production of small 360° cameras. The first camera which I was aware of was Ricoh Theta S, which produces relatively good quality panorama pictures and what is really cool that pictures are taken almost instantly. This was achieved by using a dual fish-eye lens which is able to record everything around the camera. After Theta S plenty of other cameras appeared on the market – Samsung and its Gear 360, LG, some cameras connected to the micro USB port of smartphone (totally idiotic idea) and others better or worst.
I started my search for 360° camera already some time ago and it was difficult to find something in reasonable price range what produces good quality pictures with relatively high resolution. A few months ago I have noticed that one of the Chinese companies, Xiaomi, decided to make their own 360° camera. Xiaomi is well known for good quality products at a rather low price. This camera (360° Xiaomi Mi Sphere) was something I was looking for:
- two 190-degree lenses, fully spherical field of view
- f/2.0 aperture
- photo resolution: 24Mpx (6912 x 3456) (Ricoh Theta S 14.5Mpx: 5376 x 2688)
- video resolution: 3.5K (3456 x 1728 @ 30fps)
- IP67 water resistance
- 6-axis image stabilization
Specs looked really amazing for that price and I started to doubt in picture quality. The problem with Chinese electronics is that almost everything provided by the manufacturer (software, manual..etc.) is in Chinese and all informations come from people who already bought it. This is particularly dangerous because some of those people are paid by the big Chinese online stores and their reviews are just made to boost sales of the item. Fortunately, I could find some unprocessed samples directly from the camera which convinced me to buy it. Because Mi Sphere is not available outside China it took almost 2 weeks to ship the package from seller to my place.
360° Xiaomi Mi Sphere arrived in small carton box with a few accessories: charging cable (micro USB), small tripod and a protector bag. There was also a manual in..Chinese. Tripod and protector bag are very well made and look solid. The camera itself has 8 x 6.5 x 1.5 cm, two lenses, the control buttons from the top and the 1/4″ tripod mount on the bottom. The design is very minimalist but somehow interesting. It is also supplied with a Wi-Fi feature for remote control. The booting is very fast and the camera is operational already after ~2 sec plus WiFi needs another 5-10 s to create a network which can be easily connected via phone. Android app, called Mi Sphere camera is available in Play store. Surprisingly, the app is in English and works quite well. Over there one can check out the live 360° view from the camera and also access the options for both videos and pictures. What I really like, is that you can adjust some setting of the camera in photo mode, like ISO, time (up to 32 sec !) and White Balance. In video mode the coolest thing is the time-lapse recording. There are also few options for display of the 360° panorama – mirror ball, panoramic and small planet. In general Xiaomi camera behaves nicely: no problems with connection, video transmission is stable even up to ~20 m with very short lagging time (1-2 s). If you want to use it without phone and WiFi it’s also not a problem bacause the delay of the button on the camera can be setup and it is remembered so smartphone is not required.
Now the most important thing – what is the picture quality? I have tested the camera in few lighting conditions and I have to admit that the quality is relativly good. The only direct comparison which I can make is to 360° photos taken with Street View app and smartphone’s camera. Of course, pictures taken with smartphone are much better and more detailed but also more time consuming. Resolution of the pistures shoot with Mi Sphere is decent – in the middle of the picture very good, coming close to the lens edges chromatic and spherical aberrations are very high but again no surprise – two 190° lenses for this price are just not perfect. Noise is present in almost all lighting conditions but is quite uniform and only problematic at high magnifications. Details are poor and only small pictures are really usable (for example for VR). Photos taken during the night at long exposures are blurry and details are not sharp. Noise is decent for night pictures but I would suggest taking longer exposures with lower ISO to minimize it.
Movies are recorded from both lenses independently and not stitched immediately after recording. This has to be done in the app and takes quite some time. Fortunately, this is the only step needed to publish this video. I don’t have much expertise in movies quality, so I will leave this to your juggement. You can check the video sample below.
To sum up I think that 360° Xiaomi Mi Sphere camera is quite good. It won’t provide pictures with astonishing resolution or attention to details. But in comparison to spheres made by photo stitching the picture is generated immediately and can be taken from almost every place. If you need a small 360° camera which does its job – this one is for you.
- Small and rigid
- Relatively long battery live
- The highest resolution from low/middle price range 360° cameras
- Many settings for photos and movies
- Manual mode for picture recording
- Speed of operation
- Frequent app updates
- WiFi works well for long distance
- Hard to get (only Chinese shops)
- Warranty issues (related to the 1st one)
- Picture quality in all lightning conditions
- Poor details of pictures (especially during night)
- App still needs some work
- Stitching is not always perfect