All round greatness
Nearly every day is unboxing day at 360 Labs.
The staff of six is constantly receiving gadgets and cameras to aid their mission of making 360 video the go-to medium for virtual reality.
Matt Rowell, co-founder and president, holds up a camera made by Garmin that came out this summer. It's two high resolution video cameras, attached back-to-back, about the size of deck of cards. It produced a great image when they strapped it to a member of the U.S Coast Guard as he jumped from a helicopter into the water near Astoria.
The Garmin VIRB 360 costs $800, has Wi-Fi, can be tracked on a map and is slightly less bulky than the equivalent by GoPro — and salt water didn't bother it. The Coast Guard came to them because they wanted a recruitment video that would make 17-year-olds get a feel for life in the Coast Guard. At three minutes long it's short enough to be able to get the kids in and out of the goggles quickly, but long enough that they feel immersed in the thrilling action.
Which, as anyone at 360 Labs will tell you, that is the advantage of panoramic stills and video over the computer-generated VR that has been developed in software such as Unity. It's just as immersive, but it just looks more real.
Matthew Clarke, creative director and director of business development, jokes that he doesn't really care about video games or what else's going on in computer generated VR, because video will always be better. "We're journalists. And everyone here knows how to write, shoot, edit and market a story."
The desks at 360 Labs are cluttered with many-headed cameras, lenses, grips, stands and tripods. There are headsets lines up on shelves — both the immersive Vive kind by HTC, and the cardboard ones from Google into which you slide a smart phone. There are flight cases and waterproof boxes, manuals and tools. The staff research the technology constantly, and have a good enough name in the industry that hardware clients often seek them out for feedback. (The blog, written by Matt Rowell, keeps ahead of the trends.)
A client such as Daimler wants to show off its latest high-tech truck? 360 Labs shoots the video and Daimler sends out headsets — to keep — loaded with the imagery. Ryder wants to show off its lesser known business as a packer and shipper? It commissions 360 Labs to create a video to be shown in a branded cardboard phone holder, a lot like Google Cardboard.
Rendering time is money
Clients often have a vague idea that they need to have a VR presentation for a trade show because it's the hot thing, or they are tech companies that have a tech story to tell. They often don't have much time and aren't sure which medium or system to go with. At 360 Labs they evangelize panoramic video because that's what they do, and because they think it creates the richest content, the best at creating empathy.
"Sometimes clients look at a bid (to build something) in a game engine, and all the 3D modelling that goes with it, and it's either insanely expensive or it takes a really long time. They have a trade show in two months. Or they want their product to look real. And 360 video is going to capture reality better than rendering something."
Matt Rowell started as a Google Trusted Photographer just over five years ago. In this scheme, Google allowed pro photographers to shoot the interiors of local businesses and put them on Google Maps. The goal was to make Google attractive to small businesses. Rowell was working at a web design company and wanted to get into photography.
They met and decided to market together and become a business. Thomas Hayden showed him 360 degree video. Hayden started shooting that format more than a decade ago. "Back then Oculus was just an idea, we didn't have Facebook and YouTube, but we knew it would get out ahead."
In the early days they used regular DSLR still camera, a Canon 7D with a fish eye lens, on a panorama tripod head.
At the old TIE incubator in Northwest, they could be seen showing off an early rig and the software needed to stitch the images together. Now stitching software companies are snapped up by the likes of Nikon and Adobe.
Google doesn't need its army of pro photographers for that now, it's crowdsourced by people with their smartphones. "In terms of just wanting a picture of what the beach looked like on a certain day, it's good enough," says Hayden.
As the public gets used to shooting panoramic photos and video for social media, the professionals are keeping the quality gap wide open. The iPhone 8 might have a great camera, but it's nothing compared to what the pros have.
"I've taken 20 gigapixel pictures which are made up of over 600 DSLR pictures," says Hayden.
Rowell sees his staff as journalists telling stories within a niche medium. For example, they shot video of a whitewater rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. Using the mouse on the computer the viewer can look forward or backward, as though sitting high on the bow. With the rushing grey water, the orange rock walls and the serious faces of the boat passengers, you certainly feel like you are entering a space you've only imagined before. It's like IMAX on your desktop. When ported to a headset it becomes many times more powerful.
For the Aug. 21, 2017 Great American Eclipse, they set up a camera to take in the grandeur of the landscape. (This is well away from the whooping crowds.) As well as the usual shot of a sparkling orb in the sky, the video shows the shadows embracing the fields and trees.
One tough modder
Another commercial shoot was for Dell computers. They wanted to show off the way their technology is used in apparel making at Columbia Sportswear. A video showed Mark Chase, Columbia's Director of Toughness, in an all over body scanner that is used to make patterns for athletic apparel. Dell computers run the software. But that's the end of that part of the story. Most of what follows is Chase and a guide walking through the forest at Oswald West State Park. He talks about the importance of rain gear and boots but the real star is the natural world. Then they are shown climbing a 200-foot Sitka Spruce. He wears a shoulder-mounted camera. There are three cameras planted on the tree, spaced out along the way, to get establishing shots. As you view it wearing a headset, you can look down to the forest floor, or up to the balding crown of the tree, or stare at the bark ahead.
At the end a drone shoots video of them men, soaring above them. An animated blue line is drawn down to them, showing how small they are compared to the mighty trees, mountains and Pacific Ocean.
360 Labs is about to move to a bigger space in its trendy east side building. Business is booming.
As well as recruitment videos, Clarke says the opportunities are huge. Research has shown that Alzheimer's and dementia patients can benefit from watching immersive videos of crucial memories. "Exploring a childhood home, they can measure parts of the brain reacting."
And then there's news "The best 360 video from the (2016 presidential) campaign was often shot by bloggers and independent journalists. When you can watch a debate and see the audience give a standing ovation, or see a rally where the noise is coming from a cheering section, that's different."
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Reporter, The Business Tribune
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