VR180… then and now

[Editor’s note: this article by Francois Beaulieu is being published posthumously.  He worked on the article in the final week of his life.  He didn’t tell me the article was actually already just about done. Perhaps he wanted me to discover it after he was gone as a surprise parting gift to the community.  Without any edits, here is Francois’ final article, including his personal notes.]

I have been shooting 3D for about forty-three years now.  Shooting 3D is very similar to shooting in 2D in that one frames the subject of interest and takes a picture or shoots a video.  The difference with 3D is that the resulting effect much depends on the nature of the scene. Scenes with a lot of texture will have more impact in 3D.

Early on, I came across a novel idea by an American by the name of Eric Howlett.  Eric came up with the idea that if one widened the field of view of the taking lenses substantially, one could increase the sense of presence when viewed in a wide angle viewer.  He designed a camera with wide angle fisheye lenses and a viewer that restored the fisheye images as rectilinear very wide angle images.  This was my first taste of immersive 3D.  And it’s also what, several decades later, led to VR headsets and VR180 cameras.

LEEP MF WA 3D camera
LEEP MF WA 3D camera

In fact, some of the first VR headsets utilized the same lens modules as were used in Howlett’s film viewer.  But Eric’s revolutionary concept was never marketed properly.  For a while, he tried to produce the cameras and viewers in a small production line inside his workshop, but that resulted in failure.  Fast forward many years later, with the digital era upon us, Eric in a surprisingly prophetic email to me dated June 15 2008 (shortly before his passing)  wrote…

“However, I have been thinking lately that digital photography is becoming good enough to produce acceptable LEEP format pictures, so that an embrace of the idea by a company like Canon could revive a very good idea with new camera technology.”

Well, Canon wasn’t the first.  As VR headsets were being developed, some tinkerers started experimenting with sets of cameras outfitted with very wide angle fisheye lenses, in fact, covering a field of view much wider than Howlett’s cameras.  And then  it took several more years for enterprises to come up with commercially produced integrated 3D 180 cameras.  The earliest of these was the LucidCam.  Admittedly, the LucidCam was plagued with a number of problems.  However, the concept was sound and it did not take long for larger enterprises to come up with their own designs.

First came the Lenovo Mirage – a compact point and shoot camera similar i design to the LucidCam.  Unfortunately, it had its own set of roblems not the least f which wer poor IQ and terrible audio !


In the meantime, Kodak – who had while Human YE already produced several 360ncameras – came up witha concept for a twin lens camera that could shoot both 2D 360 and 3D 180 clips.  They figured that the dual function would attract more customers but nver actually marketed that camera.  Two other enterprises however picked up on the idea and came up with their own versions of a dual fucntion camera.  Insta360’s EVO was clearly patterneed after Kodak’s protype while Human Eyes’ Vuze XR was a very differnt design with only the lenses switching poitions while the rest of the body took the form of a handle.  Image quality was far better than previous such caeras,.  However, was it su ch a good idea to combine two unrelated modes into one ?  Most people purchasing such cameras were primiarily interest in the 3D immersive images and clips these cameras could provide and very selsom used the 360 mode that could only provide 2D images and clips



But wide angle 3D is only one facet of 3D photography. Eric’s ultra wide-angle approach never deterred 3D photographers from continuing to shoot using normal lenses.

As I have shown in a previous article, 3D photography has been with us since the invention of photography and it has never been abandoned. This is why it always surprises me when I hear proponents of the 3D180 format downplay the importance of 3D itself. The two main arguments I hear suggesting that “3D is on its way out” are a) the discontinuation of passive and active 3D TVs by major manufacturers and b) the decline of 3D movies….

So let’s stop and think for a moment about those two arguments. They mainly refer to the movie industry – not to 3D photography itself.   And, if we were to apply the same arguments in regards 3D180, then we would have to admit that… all consumer 3D180 cameras also have been discontinued and… what about those major 3D180 productions ? There have been hundreds of 3D movies produced over the last fifteen years, yet how many major 3D180 productions have there been ? Zero !

In other words, such arguments don’t stand up. What we must look at is how 3D photographers approach their medium. 3D photographers very much like 2D photographers like to frame their subjects. And this calls for different lenses and techniques, depending on what the photographer intends to capture. Serious photographers use a multitude of lenses: Wide angle if they wish to capture a scene, macro if they wish to capture a small subject and telephoto if they wish to capture something that is faraway. It would make no sense for a 2D photographer to contend with a single fisheye lens to do all his photography work.

Yet why is it that proponents of 3D180 cameras suggest that, going forward, it should be the only acceptable form of 3D ? Probably because they have never really acquainted themselves with what is possible with regular 3D. Yet there have been a myriad of products that small enterprises have developed for 3D photography over the years to further enhance its great versatility.

Take for example a macro adapter for the Lumix 3D lens…

Lumix close up adapter for 3D Macro
Lumix close up adapter for 3D Macro

…or a custom 3D macro lens for full-frame DSLRs

deWijs Macro 3D lens
deWijs Macro 3D lens

…or a wide angle adapter for the Fuji W3 that also offers external flash sync.  [Mic: VR180 lenses for DSLRs/mirrorless also enable the use of flash for VR180, so I don’t think this is a strong argument.]

Cyclopital WA adapter for Fuji W3
Cyclopital WA adapter for Fuji W3

Then there is the resourcefulness of 3D photographers that design their own equipment.   Here, a tele-macro 3D camera designed by stereographer Timo Puhaka combining two Canon cameras.  [Mic: 3D 180 creators also design their own equipment, so I don’t think this is a strong argument.]

Tele macro 3D rig
Tele macro 3D rig

There is also the art of hyperstereo that is used to convey a miniaturized effect to subjects close and far. This is done by increasing the lens separation beyond that of human eye separation.  [Mic: It is also possible to create a hyperstereoscopic 3D 180 photo or video.]

So now, let’s again rephrase the question: Which is best ? Normal 3D, macro 3D, tele 3D, hyperstereo 3D, wide angle 3D or 3D180 ?  [Mic: I think the question should really focus on the distinction between 3D and 3D 180, which is that with 3D 180, the viewer sees a hemispherical view and can rotate their head.  I think you should focus on whether that is an improvement or not an improvement.  When is it useful and when is it not useful?]  Well, none is in fact best. It all depends which subjects you intend to photograph.

Immersive 3D is definitely appealing but it is so mainly if the entire scene is of interest. It is ideal for capturing the sense of being there where that sense is a strong part of what you are trying to convey. For example, a visit to the ancient ruins of Egypt or Greece, or a visit to a picturesque country like Venice where one finds oneself surrounded by fascinating architecture may be best recorded with a 3D180 camera. But if one wishes to photograph a small bird, a bee, it will be impossible to do so using the same camera.

Even when photographing a person, it is often preferable to isolate him or her from a surrounding which may end up being more distracting than anything else. As an example, over the past ten years, I have photographed cosplayers at cosplay conventions. These conventions are always extremely crowded. It is in such cases much better to be able to crop and frame the subject rather than also have all the onlookers and passersby in the picture.

And when it comes to viewing 3D, there is an endless list of ways to do so whereas 3D180 may essentially be viewed using a VR headset in order to convey the immersive effect.

The bottom line is that there really isn’t a best form of 3D. 3D offers a vast gamut of possibilities that cannot be limited to one format alone.


About the author

Francois B

Francois B is a 3D photographer and researcher with several decades of experience. He has researched countless 3D patents and equipment over the years, many dating from the 19th and 20th century. He has also corresponded with several inventors behind those patents and designed his own 3D equipment. Since 2013, he has been beta-testing 3D products for various companies including CVision, Cinera, Mopic, EyeFly 3D, TriDef, etc. He currently acts as consultant for several enterprises developing 3D equipment.

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