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Will Lenovo Mirage Camera (Google VR180) and Mirage Solo VR headset enable VR to succeed?

Lenovo Mirage and Lenovo Mirage Solo
Lenovo Mirage and Lenovo Mirage Solo

The first Google VR180 camera — the Lenovo Mirage — is launching on May 6, together with the Mirage Solo VR headset, a standalone Google Daydream 2.0 headset with 6DOF positional tracking, with no need for external sensors.   Both are available for preorder.  Here’s a detailed analysis of why they could enable VR to become mainstream.

There is now more awareness about VR than ever, thanks to movies such as Ready Player One.  However, in terms of ownership of VR headsets, they are still relatively uncommon.  Even the most popular VR headsets, Samsung Gear VR and Sony Playstation VR, have not become smashing successes in terms of sales.

No one knows for sure exactly why, but pundits have offered many reasons, such as not enough high quality content, or cost, or hardware requirements that are too steep, or that they are too inconvenient.  In my opinion, the most important obstacle is that in order for VR to succeed, people must first come to want to use VR to capture their own photos and videos.

Most people use smartphones to take photos or videos, and view them on smartphones, not because they offer higher image quality but simply due to convenience.  Therefore the burden is on 360 cameras and VR headsets to show that they are so much better that people would actually prefer to use them even if smartphones are much more convenient for shooting and for viewing.

This is where Google VR180 comes in.  Let’s start with VR180 videos, which are not simply half of a 360 video.  When a user views a Google VR180 on a smartphone or laptop, the video will appear as a non-360 4K video.  But if the viewer views the same video on a VR headset (even Google Cardboard), the video becomes a 3D 180 video where they can look around.   This is a clever way to emphasize to users the difference between conventional videos and VR videos.

Here is a sample VR180 video (watch it in a cardboard viewer or other VR headset to see it in 3D 180):

Most importantly, the video will look decent in terms of sheer image quality, unlike many consumer 360 cameras that look noticeably less detailed than conventional cameras.  Here is a sample from the Lenovo Mirage.

The other part is of course the viewing experience. Right now, the most common way to view 360 videos in a VR headset is Google Cardboard. It’s cheap but it has several disadvantages. First, the tracking quality is not as good as it should be, often with significant ghosting and other issues, which is why it doesn’t feel immersive.  Second, it’s not so convenient.  You have to insert your phone (often, you’ll have to remove the phone from its case) and ensure that the phone is in the middle of the VR headset.   Die hard VR fans won’t mind at all, but the challenge is to persuade average consumers.

Here’s where Mirage Solo comes in.  It’s a standalone device, so you don’t have to insert your phone or connect it to a PC.   Second, its tracking is much better than Google Cardboard, and it even has 6DOF positional tracking, just like the HTC Vive (reviewed here) or Oculus Rift (reviewed here).  Third, and just as important, it does not need any external sensors.  Instead, it uses inside-out sensors to analyze its surroundings and determine how it is moving.  The end result is a VR headset with no wires — one that you can wear immediately to experience ‘real’ VR instantly.

For these reasons, Mirage Camera and Mirage Solo might be the answer for taking VR mainstream.  But will they actually succeed?  Here’s my analysis.

Outlook for Google VR180

I’m hopeful about Mirage Camera. The price is reasonable, and the camera is simple and easy to use for average consumers, not just in terms of its controls, but in terms of composition.  I’ve shot with 3D 180 format, and to me it is much simpler to compose for it, compared to a 360 camera.  In fact, you can pretty much shoot with it the same way you would with a smartphone.  The missing link, however is to make it easy and convenient for consumers to view the videos they shot with Mirage Camera.

So, how is Mirage Solo?  Unfortunately, I cannot yet say that I’m super optimistic about the Mirage Solo headset for at least two reasons.  First is price: $399 is not cheap, and in fact is just as expensive as Oculus Rift.  True, it doesn’t need any cables, so it’s much more convenient.  But the second issue is the quality of the VR experience.  Although it does have positional tracking, the graphics on the ads and demos I’ve seen so far seem no better than current Daydream or Gear VR games, and a world of difference from Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.  Moreover, its controller has much more limited tracking compared to the controllers on the Rift or Vive or even PSVR.

The one glimmer of hope about Mirage Solo is Google’s Seurat optimize technology, which can produce quality VR graphics even with smartphones, and presumably the Mirage Solo:

It works by rendering only the portion that is visible to the viewer, rather than all the polygons of the 3D model.

Google Seurat VR optimization technology
Google Seurat VR optimization technology (GIF by Google)

If Seurat can enable Mirage Solo to provide desktop-quality VR experiences, then I think it could impress consumers enough to take the dive into VR.

Lenovo Mirage Camera and Mirage Solo headset are available for preorder from Amazon, either separately or as a bundle.  Lenovo Mirage Camera is $299.  Lenovo Mirage Solo is $399.  If you order both as a bundle, you can save $50.   I did order both myself and will post a review as soon as I receive them.  Meanwhile, Yi Horizon, the other Google VR180 camera for consumers, has been reportedly pushed back to October 2018 (thanks to reader Francis for the tip!).

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Mic Ty

13 Comments

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  • I like the concept but the lack of a way to frame the scene with the Lenovo Mirage is a no go for me. Even smartphone
    camera users are used to framing shots. Can’t see how this Lenovo Mirage will get traction without one. Too bad the Yi 180 is pushed back to Fall.

    Bill

    • There is no need to frame the scene since VR180 cameras record everything that is in front of you. All you need is to point the camera in front of you. That’s why a digital display is not mandatory.

      The one thing I like about the Mirage over the Horizon is that it has a user replaceable battery whereas the Yi Horizon has a built-in one.

        • It’s not the same as framing in regular photography because when you look at the result via the headset, you only see what’s in front of you. And besides, only the subject matter at the front will be in full 3D.

          The problem with the Yi’s display is that it isn’t really showing you the full image you are recording, it is showing you what the result would look like as a 2D wide angle image – a very stretched and distorted one. The image it actually records is a square one but the one it shows you on its tiny display is rectangular.

          I would have preferred a larger display that shows both the left and the right image. I am not convinced that the tiny rectangular display on the Yi will be of much use other than to adjust settings.

    • I agree. The ability to compose shots without a smartphone is a big selling point. I can get why 360 cameras cannot have a screen but 180 should. It will make them even easier to use.

      • It’s simply not the same as a regular camera or phone because 180 lenses record absolutely everything in front and to the sides of you so you need only to point the camera in the direction of the subject and the entire scene that you see with your eyes will be recorded.

        In other words, the view of your eyes is likely to give you a better idea of what the camera is recording than a tiny display would.

  • Here is my take on it…

    One thing I have learned from how previous 3D products were marketed in the past – notably, Fuji’s W3 – is that most people are notably ignorant of 3D. Yes, even with the number of 3D movies on the big screen, most people still don’t understand why such a camera have two lenses. They often assume that one is for wide shots and the other for tele or they assume one is a viewfinder. But they seldom grasp how a lens being a few millimeters away from another can produce 3D. However, most important, seeing such a camera does not evoke the excitement that it would in a 3D enthusiast. Therefore the presence of twin lenses is not a selling point.

    The proposed VR180 cameras otherwise look rather plain and the consumer is more likely to be attracted to a more sophisticated looking 2D compact with many more features than a plain plastic camera with two measly-looking fixed focal length lenses !

    As for the VR headset, I use an economical all-in-one model with Android OS. It hardly cost more than a hundred bucks and works quite well. I find I end up using it so seldom that I wouldn’t consider paying four time that amount for something that is only marginally better. Yet I am a 3D and VR fan. So how likely is it that the average consumer will feel motivated to dish out four hundred bucks for a headset and another three-hundred for a dinky camera ?

    What I also found is that most people feel intimated by the large “diving mask” look of the headset and all that padding that ends up stuck on their face !

    Finally, how is VR180 going to be marketed ? Is it going to be available in store ? Will people be given an opportunity to try it out ? Will they care to try it out ?

    And as for shooting one’s own content making a difference, I don’t see people racing to make their own movies because they saw a movie at the cinema. The truth is that most people are snapshooters and they just like to have pictures to put on social media or printed and put in albums. That’s why in spite of all the digital advancements, instant film cameras have a renewed popularity.

    180 cameras have one advantage in that they shoot the entire scene in front and to the sides of us. However that is also their big shortcoming since the available pixels are spread over such a wide area. The other problem is that very wide angle field. Most people like to take pictures of friends and… selfies. What’s the point of using a fisheye lens to take a portrait ?

    As for the video appearing as regular 2D, it still remains they will be very wide angle distorted images – not ideal to show faces ! And that won’t do much to alert people that this is in fact a 3D 180 recording…

    I wish them best of luck, but finding ways to get people interested in VR180 is going to be quite a challenge.

  • When it comes to VR I already have a Gear VR and an Oculus Rift. I see the Oculus Go as a better middle ground than the Mirage Solo for people getting into VR. That said this has a lot to do with devices like the Santa Cruze which are both stand-alone and have 6 DoF controllers. For someone like me, it makes more sense to wait for devices like that. If they make compelling software that uses the 6 DoF I can see the Mirage Solo take off.

    The Mirage camera is very tempting. It comes out before my biggest anime convention of the year (ACEN) but I want to hold out for the YI. I would love to create VR180 cosplay music videos but If I rush into it I’m sure the quality will suffer. After all, I have not done CMVs or VR180 so I’ll hold off for now. Good move on Lenovo for getting it out early. They are really tempting me!

    • One thing you might keep in mind if you are shooting at cons is that the Mirage has a user replaceable battery so you can get spare batteries and not have to worry about running out of powe halfway through the day.

      I agree that the Yi Horizon “looks” fancier, but the current prototype they are showing has a built-in battery only. Therefore,unless they correct that before they release it, the Mirage may actually be a better choice for con use.

  • Content is what drives technology and today there isn’t enough good VR content to justify buying an expensive device. Gaming could be one option (but limited to gamers), it’s more a HTC Vive or Occulus territory. For VR to go really mainstream, we’ll have to wait a little bit more according to me. Maybe porn will boost adoption 🙂

  • Am I missing something. How am I suppose to view these vids in a mobile viewer/cardboard? What am I missing? Where’s the left/right eye? And what’s the point of putting on a headset to just view 180!?

    • Your reaction is exactly how I expect the general public will react…

      You see, Tim, Google’s “genial” idea for its VR180 standard is that the actual stereo pair is hidden when you view VR180 content on a computer monitor. This way, nobody will know that it’s actually a 3D 180 clip ! One can only see the clip in 3D 180 when played on a phone. The trick to that is that it displays in 2D in 720p and lower resolution but in 3D in 1080p and higher resolution.

      As to why watch in a headset in 180 ? Well, 180 is a whole hemisphere so you can look left and right, up and down. The immersive effect is complete, especially given that most people seldom look behind them when viewing 360 content.

    • I’m no expert. But I muddle though by using my smartphone (Android) to view the video. But I have to tap the little “headset” icon down at the bottom to get the double image that gives the immersive effect when using a headset.

      BTW I’m very reluctant to commit much $ on this yet. So I use this very simple, inexpensive viewer http://a.co/i2vkKaW. Seems to work and gives me the basic idea.

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