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360 TIPPING POINT: Can the GoPro Fusion replace your smartphone camera and action camera?

Can GoPro Fusion replace your smartphone and action camera?
Can GoPro Fusion replace your smartphone and action camera?

Is the GoPro Fusion good enough to replace your smartphone or action camera, to serve as your ONLY camera?   Is there any advantage for doing so, and why is this a very important question for the 360 camera industry?

Digital cameras replaced film cameras, and smartphones have replaced built-in lens digital cameras.  In each case, there was a tipping point where the new technology was ‘good enough’ and other factors such as convenience became more important for buyers.  In this post, I will discuss whether 360 cameras — specifically the GoPro Fusion (reviewed here) — can now replace smartphones or action cameras as the only camera for casual users.

In Part 1, I will discuss the advantages of a 360 camera and why they may someday become the camera of choice for most people.  In Part 2, I will discuss what is the tipping point for 360 cameras.  In Part 3, I will discuss how I compared the Fusion a 360 camera with non-360 cameras.  In Part 4, I will discuss the results of my comparison.

360 camera advantages — but with a catch

Although virtually all smartphone users take photos and videos with their phone, I would venture to say that most of them don’t necessarily see themselves as photographers.  Rather they take photos and videos primarily as a way of documenting their life as opposed to creating art.

For documentary photos and videos, 360 cameras are generally superior to conventional cameras.  (360 cameras can be good for art as well, but we can talk about that next time.)  A non-360 camera allows you to capture a subject, but a 360 camera captures not only that subject but everything around it, thus capturing the subject, the time, and the place in a single shot.

Beyond capturing an all-encompassing perspective, a 360 view confers unique capabilities on 360 cameras, such as incredible gimbal-like stabilization (when paired with a capable sensor and software).  Stabilized 360 cameras can also appear invisible when used with a sufficiently narrow selfie stick or monopod, giving users the ability to shoot videos that look like they were shot by a professional cameraman using cranes or jibs.  Stabilized 360 cameras also free the user’s attention and allow the user to focus on the activity or event, instead of trying to frame the photo or video.  You can see other advantages here (it’s a short video about the Nano S, another 360 camera — most of the benefits apply to the Fusion as well).

What’s the catch?

Although 360 cameras are theoretically better than non-360 cameras for documentation, they do have one significant tradeoff, which is generally lower image quality.  Consumer 360 cameras use the same sensors as smartphones and other digital cameras.  Although 360 cameras have two or more such sensors, each sensor typically captures a greater than 180-degree circular field of view (180 degrees vertically and horizontally).  By contrast, the sensor in most smartphones is paired with a lens that is usually the equivalent of 28mm, which corresponds to a horizontal field of view of only 65.5 degrees and vertical field of view of only 46.4 degrees).  A smartphone will therefore have many more pixels per degree field of view, compared to a 360 camera with two of the same sensors, and thus higher image quality (all other factors being equal).

What is the Tipping Point for 360 Cameras?

The lower image quality of 360 cameras is not a fatal flaw.  When digital cameras were first invented, their image quality was nowhere close to those of film cameras.  Likewise, the image quality of smartphones was far lower than that of built-in lens cameras.  Yet in both cases, digital cameras and smartphones eventually reached a point where they were ‘good enough’ to become replacements.  That doesn’t mean they had better image quality than the old technology — just that they reached the threshold of satisfying buyers.

The question is at what point do 360 cameras become ‘good enough’ to replace smartphones as cameras?  To answer this question, I reviewed the sales data for built-in lens cameras.  I found a helpful chart on Photography Life that shows how sales for digital cameras dropped significantly in 2014, before nosediving in 2015.  Check out the original Photography Life article here.

Digital camera sales plummeted when smartphones became ‘good enough,’ and that’s the tipping point for consumers.  In 2014, Apple released the iPhone 5S and in 2015, they released the iPhone 6.  I would therefore argue that if a 360 camera can produce an image ‘as good as’ that of an iPhone 5S or iPhone 6, it meets the threshold of qualifying as a replacement.  That’s exactly what I tested here — by comparing the GoPro Fusion against the iPhone 6.  I also compared the Fusion against the Hero 5 Black.

 

How I compared a 360 camera to non-360 cameras

Before we get to the comparison, there’s an important question — what does it mean to be ‘as good as’ an iPhone 6?  As we mentioned earlier, 360 cameras have two sensors, and they capture a far wider field of view.  This makes it very difficult to do a direct comparison between a 360 camera and a non-360 camera.

My solution was to take photos and videos with the Fusion, iPhone 6, and Hero 5 so that they could each view the same objects at the same viewing size.   I used the Fusion to take a photo of a brick wall and viewed it with the default view in GoPro VR Viewer 3.0, using an equirectangular projection.  I then took shots with the iPhone 6 and Hero 5 at various distances so that when I viewed the iPhone 6 and Hero 5 Black photos and videos on the same monitor in full screen, the bricks in the wall appeared to be around the same size between the photos and videos.

The distances from the wall turned out to be as follows:

GoPro Fusion – 37 inches (both photos and videos)
GoPro Hero5 Black photo (12mp; wide view) – 35 inches
GoPro Hero5 Black video (1080p, wide view) – 61 inches
iPhone 6 photo: 85 inches
iPhone 6 video: 128 inches

I viewed the samples from the Fusion using GoPro VR View 3.0, using the default viewing size, with equirectangular projection, in full screen on a 1080p monitor.  I viewed the iPhone 6 and Hero 5 Black videos using the Movies & TV app in Windows 10, also in full screen.  For the iPhone and Hero 5 photos, I used the Photos app in Windows 10, in full screen.  I didn’t zoom in or zoom out, except that to make the bricks the same size, I had to roll the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in one notch for the Fusion photo or video (this puts the Fusion at a slight handicap).

I noticed also that the iPhone was already pre-sharpened, therefore I used the sharpening setting on GoPro Fusion Studio 1.1 and set it to 160 (a very modest sharpening).

 

GoPro Fusion vs. iPhone 6 vs. GoPro HERO 5 Black

Here are the results.  Caveat: at the time I took these tests, my Fusion was already scratched from an accident.  Therefore there is a blob in the photo.  Pls. ignore it.

Blob from scratched lens on GoPro Fusion
Blob from scratched lens on GoPro Fusion

First, the video comparison.  Here is a smaller version of the comparison.  GoPro Fusion is in the middle.  iPhone 6 is on the left, while Hero 5 Black is on the right.

Video comparison: iPhone 6 vs. GoPro Fusion vs. Hero 5 Black
Video comparison: iPhone 6 vs. GoPro Fusion vs. Hero 5 Black

You can see that the bricks are approximately the same size.  At this view, the Fusion is either equal to, or a little more detailed than the iPhone 6, and better than the Hero 5 Black (in 1080 mode).  You can see in the full size comparison available for download here.

I also did a comparison for photo quality.  Again, the iPhone 6 is on the left, the Fusion in the middle, and the Hero5 on the right.

photo comparison: iPhone 6 vs. GoPro Fusion vs. GoPro Hero 5 Black
photo comparison: iPhone 6 vs. GoPro Fusion vs. GoPro Hero 5 Black

In the photo comparison, the iPhone appears to have greater acuity, but in terms of level of detail at this viewing size, the Fusion is very similar to the iPhone 6 and Hero 5 Black. The full size comparison for available for download here.

Conclusion

Based on my testing, I conclude that the GoPro Fusion has similar photo quality an iPhone 6 or Hero 5 Black, when they are each used to shoot a subject so that the subject appears at a similar size.  For video, the Fusion video quality is equal to, if not better than the iPhone, and is better than the Hero 5 Black (in 1080 mode).  In other words, I would conclude that the GoPro Fusion has reached the threshold where it can replace a smartphone or action camera as a camera for photo as well as video.

While the Fusion has the capability of becoming a smartphone or action camera replacement, there are at least two significant challenges.  The easier challenge is fixing the mobile app to make it easier for consumers to create overcapture photos and videos (right now the Android version doesn’t have an overcapture feature) and to export 360 photos and videos.  The more difficult challenge is that the Fusion’s benefits are not obvious to consumers, and so the 360 community must seek to educate consumers about the advantages of stabilized 360 cameras.

As for other 360 cameras, I believe there are others that can replace smartphones or action cameras for photo, such as the Xiaomi Mijia Mi Sphere, Madventure 360 and Insta360 ONE.  As for video, the Yi 360 VR might be able to serve as a smartphone replacement.  But GoPro Fusion (available here) is unique in being the 360 camera that can best serve as a smartphone replacement for both photos and videos.  Pls. look out for my video review – I promise it will be worth the wait.

About the author

Mic Ty

10 Comments

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  • Hi Mic, some good points, for example “they reached the threshold of satisfying buyers” on iPhone vs compact cameras. I’d say for 360 Fusion to be consumer competitive the ease of getting satisfactory results is key; workflow has to be much simplified -and they seem to be working on it as far as the app -as you note.

  • The point you are not addressing is that the reason why low-end compact camera sales have declined is not because consumers favored cellphone cameras over them but because a “good enough” camera comes FREE with any cellphone nowadays and most people – being snap-shooters mainly – don’t see a need to bother with an independent camera when one is already in their phone.

    And for the very same reason, they would not see any need to purchase a $700.00 360 camera when they already have that FREE “good enough” camera on their cellphone.

    Needless to say, I also disagree with the notion that a 360 camera is “better” on account that it records the entire scene as there are very few times when the scene is of interest over 360 degrees.

    • Thanks Francois. I totally agree about smartphones becoming ‘free’ cameras, and $700 is a long way from being free. 🙂 So this is why I didn’t say that it ‘will’ become a replacement.

      Rather, my point is about the maturity of 360 technology. It has matured to the point that it ‘can’ be a better non-360 camera than a non-360 camera (for the reasons I showed in my Nano S video). The Fusion combines many of the advantages of the Nano S with image quality that is ‘good enough’ compared to a non-360 camera.

      But very, very few people know the non-360 benefits of a 360 camera — even many 360 shooters themselves don’t know. So the challenge for the 360 industry is showing people the benefits of a 360 camera for non-360 videos and photos.

      Best regards,
      Mic

      • ” It has matured to the point that it ‘can’ be a better non-360 camera than a non-360 camera”

        But your side-by-side is somewhat biased since you’re actually comparing to a free phone cam or action cam – not with a DSLR or high-end compact in the same price range. As Casey pointed out, most people willing to spend that kind of money are much more likely to go for the latter.

        Another point that is seldom addressed is that 360 cameras are primarily “camcorders” in that they are designed primarily to shoot video. Still photographers are much less likely to be swayed by action camera design and performance and will be looking for hardware controls, ergonomic shape. large display and interchangeable or zoom lenses.

        So I think they are different markets. Let’s not kid ourselves. People buying a 360 camera will buy it primarily for what a regular camera cannot do. And that’s where the emphasis should be. I think that Nano S clip illustrates that very well.

        • Hi Francois. There is precedent for a 360 camera to be used as a non-360 camera for professional use. They did that in one of the battle scenes in one of the new Star Wars movies, maybe Rogue One…. I’m not sure.

          But that’s not my point. I’m only talking about 360 cameras being a better non-360 camera ***for consumers***. Given that point, what do you suggest would be a fair comparison? I chose the iPhone 6, and I provided my reasons. Pls. let me know which consumer camera, if any, that you think would be better for comparison, and let me know why.

          Despite the Fusion’s price, I don’t think it is fair to compare it against DSLRs or high-end compacts because few consumers use them. Again I’m only talking about 360 technology – whether it has reached a point where the technology (regardless of cost) is “good enough” for the masses. I’m not talking about whether the Fusion will be a commercial success, or a “better deal” as a camera. It’s hard to beat ‘free’! 😀

          Yes, people will indeed buy 360 cameras for what a regular camera cannot do, as you said. But the question is, what kinds of applications do you think they would be more interested in — an “improvement” in the way they currently use their camera, or something very different from the way they use their camera? What do you think? I think they will first be more interested in the former.

          In any case, I think 3D is the latter type of application. It is not just an improvement to 2D but something quite different. I would say fully spherical 360 photos and 360 videos are also in the latter group. By comparison, the non-360 applications of 360 cameras (stabilization, etc.) are in the former group, since they don’t require any change in viewing method or the way they share them. Do you agree about that?

          Best regards,
          Mic

          • > “But that’s not my point. I’m only talking about 360 cameras being a better non-360 camera ***for consumers***.”

            Yeah, but you are addressing this to a consumer willing to put an extra seven hundred dollars on a camera. And I suspect that if that consumer has the spare money, he’s more likely to consider an interchangeable lens APS-C format camera such as the Sony A6000 that has hardware controls, large display, EVF, hot shoe and so many more features… But of course, I am referring to a consumer who primarily wants to shoot stills.

            > Despite the Fusion’s price, I don’t think it is fair to compare it against DSLRs or high-end compacts because few consumers use them.

            We are not talking about “any” consumer but one that IS considering to spend seven hundred bucks on a camera. He is definitely looking for a far better option than “something like the camera on his iPhone”. And that option will generally be something like a DSLR.

            To be fair however, the title of your article specifically addresses action cameras, which can also cost a few hundred bucks. And, in this respect, I do agree that one intent on purchasing an action camera nowadays better also take a serious look at a 360 camera, which offers more versatility.

            > But the question is, what kinds of applications do you think they would be more interested in — an “improvement” in the way they currently use their camera, or something very different from the way they use their camera?

            I would say the latter because if they are looking at a 360 camera, they are looking for something different. But I concede that the former can be a motivating factor too since 360 cameras can do what an action camera does but with some extras…

            > By comparison, the non-360 applications of 360 cameras (stabilization, etc.) are in the former group, since they don’t require any change in viewing method or the way they share them. Do you agree about that?

            Believe it or not… Yes ! 🙂

            And I think it’s thanks to you because so far I had been looking at 360 and 180 mainly in the context of VR headset viewing and you really opened my eyes to the versatility of 360 cameras in regular viewing. Not that I wasn’t aware of it, but that I thought most people buying 360 cameras nowadays did so to view the clips in a headset.

          • Hi Francois. For action cameras, I think the argument to use 360 cameras is even stronger. There is even less disparity in image quality and as you said, there is greater versatility. Fusion is much more expensive than Hero 6 but I think the additional benefits justify the higher price. This is what I want to demonstrate in my upcoming Fusion video review.

            > I thought most people buying 360 cameras nowadays did so to view the clips in a headset.

            I was curious about that so a couple of months ago, I did a survey about VR headset use. The survey showed that about half of 360 camera shooters use headsets, and the other half do not. I suspect that for viewers (not shooters), the percentage of VR headset use will be much lower. As you said in one of your comments, some people just don’t want to use a headset. And I think that population (of people who don’t care about viewing in a headset) is so large that the 360 industry must be able to satisfy them too, in order to succeed. Besides that, as you said, storytelling is very hard for 360, and sometimes, a scene is not worth seeing in 360 (as opposed to non-360). This underscores the importance of a 360 camera’s performance for overcapture / flat viewing.

            Best regards,
            Mic

    • Hi Oliver. That is true for something like Kodak SP360 4K Dual Pro where you have to manually pair the files with each other. With the Fusion, it’s very easy. You just dump all the files from each Micro SD card into the same directory. Fusion Studio matches them with each other automatically, and generates thumbnail previews, so it’s not a hassle at all. And if you want to, you can connect the Fusion with just one cable to your PC and import the photos and videos from both cards simultaneously — the process is transparent and is just as if you had one Micro SD card.

      Best regards,
      Mic

  • > Mic wrote: “Fusion is much more expensive than Hero 6… ”

    I realize that but there are some pretty good lower cost 360 cameras such as the Rylo, the Insta360 One and the Mi Sphere that are on par in terms of cost with regular action cameras. And those should be tempting to consumers, given they are more affordable.

    What I am getting at is that, even though the main point you are making here relates to resolution, I think that in the long run, the greater versatility of a 360 camera as an action camera may win over people considering action cameras. I guess the main hurdle is the fact that it’s called a “360” camera ! 😉

    So it looks like I am starting to agree with you ! 🙂

    But I think maybe you could have another article that just focuses on “Can a 360 camera replace an action camera ?” Also, your clip about the Nano S is very revealing, but the title might be taken as meaning that only the Nano S can do these things. A clip outlining what “the most recent 360 cameras can do” might help the public get that today’s 360 cameras are way more versatile than those from only a few years ago.

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