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360 Camera Basics: Can my multi-lens 360 camera shoot 3D 360? Why or why not?

Can you shoot 3D 360 with your 2D 360 camera?
Can you shoot 3D 360 with your 2D 360 camera?

One of the questions I get from time to time is, can my 360 camera shoot 3D 360?  Why or why not?  I usually get this question regarding the XPhase Pro X2 or other 360 camera with more than two lenses such as the Ultracker Aleta S2C or the Pilot Era.  The short answer is that generally you cannot use a 2D 360 camera to shoot 3D 360 even if it has multiple lenses.  Here’s why you can’t.  I will also show you a workaround for shooting 3D 360 with your 2D 360 camera if you really want to.

How we see in 3D

When we look at an object with both eyes, the left eye sees the object from one perspective while the right eye sees the object from a different perspective.  For example, look at a distant object (power pole or whatever) and point your finger at it.  Now look at it with your left eye and close your right eye.  The finger will seem to be on the right side of the distant object.  If you close your left eye and look at your finger with the right eye, the same finger will appear on the left side of the distant object.  This effect is called parallax and our brain has learned to interpret it as being three dimensional.

Why you can’t shoot 3D 360 with a 2D 360 camera even if it has multiple lenses

Upgraded XPhase Pro S starts shipping
XPhase has twenty-five lenses

Some cameras have multiple lenses, such as the Ultracker Aleta with 5 lenses, or the XPhase with 25 lenses.  Can’t you use them to take a 3D 360 photo?  For example, the lenses on the left side of the XPhase and the ones on the right side of the Xphase are separated by a couple of inches.  Shouldn’t that be enough to create parallax?

The answer is no because the leftmost lens of the XPhase (or whichever 2d 360 camera you want to use) is aimed at a completely different object from the one on the opposite side of the camera.  Therefore there is not enough overlap between them.  If there is no overlap between them then there is no parallax effect.

What about lenses that are next to each other?  Yes they do overlap, which is what makes stitching them possible, but in most 2D 360 cameras, the overlapping area is very small to maximize resolution.  With very little overlap, there is only a sliver of the image that would have parallax.

How do 3D 360 cameras work?

If you can’t get 3D 360 even from a camera like the XPhase with 25 lenses, then how does a 3D 360 camera work?  (Before you read on, you might want to think about what I’ve discussed so far to guess the answer.)

Vuze is a 3D 360 camera for consumers
Vuze is a 3D 360 camera for consumers

Ready?

True 3D 360 cameras like the Vuze (now available for as low as $299) or the Insta360 Pro have two sets of lenses with 100% overlap.  In other words, the Vuze has four lenses, but it can actually shoot a 2D 360 photo with just two of its lenses (on opposite sides).  By having four such 180-degree lenses, it has 100% overlap and therefore yes you can capture 3D 360 with it.  Similarly, an Insta360 Pro has six lenses but you can shoot a fully spherical 2D 360 photo with just three of its lenses.  Every part of an image that it captures has at least two lenses facing it, so you can generate a 3D 360 photo with parallax.

Here is a sample 3D 360 photo virtual tour shot with the Insta360 Pro, uploaded to Orbix360.  You can view it in 3D 360 using a variety of formats including Google Cardboard.

Workaround for shooting 3D 360 with a 2D 360 camera

If you really, really want to shoot 3D 360 camera with your 2D 360 camera, there is a way to do it, using a variation of the old cha-cha method.  With conventional cameras, you can take a 3D photo by taking two photos side by side.  You can do something similar with 2D 360 cameras to create a 3D 360 camera, even if it has only two lenses like the Theta SC2.  The tricky part is that the left camera needs to become the right camera when you turn around.  This means you need to do a little Photoshop work.  Here’s a tutorial for doing that.