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Nikon steps into new territory with 360-degree 4K action cam

Nikon hasn’t made big splashes at CES in recent memory, however, at the 2016 show, it announced it’s entering the POV action cam market and launching a new product series, called KeyMission. The first camera announced is a rugged, portable unit that captures 360-degree videos in 4K Ultra High Definitiion (UHD).

These days, action cameras are nothing new, but Nikon thinks 360 cameras are the future of action cams. But for Nikon, there’s a longer roadmap to this strategy: 360 cameras can shoot content to be viewed on virtual reality headsets. So, Nikon isn’t just entering the action cam market, but it’s making its way into VR content creation.

“Entering the action segment is a significant milestone,” says Tadashi Nakayama, Nikon’s corporate vice president in the Imaging Business Unit. “We believe this is the breakthrough the action category needs at this moment, and it allows us to redefine this area.” Nakayama says the action cam market needs to move into the VR space.

Related: Nikon D7200 review

The announcement makes Nikon the second traditional camera maker to offer a new 360 cam, after Ricoh with its Theta series. But there are also plenty of startups, as well as well-known players like GoPro and Kodak (JK Imaging), and smartphone makers (like the Yezz Sfera, which was also unveiled at CES 2016), getting into the business.

We believe this is the breakthrough the action category needs at this moment.

The KeyMission 360, as it’s called, has two Nikkor lenses and camera sensors – one on each side, like the Theta — and captures a nearly full spherical view of what’s around you. Despite the unveiling, Nikon hasn’t released the full specs. What we know for now is that it will shoot at resolutions up to 4K UHD, and have a rugged construction — water- (down to 100 feet), dust-, shock-, and freeze-proof. It will also have electronic Vibration Reduction. It’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled (SnapBridge-compatible, Nikon’s branding for its Bluetooth Low Energy-based “always connected” protocol), so it’ll work with a smartphone or tablet for control.

In terms of sensor size and other specs, as well as pricing, that’s still to be revealed, but Nikon says it will leverage its image tech in the product, and the product will launch sometime in spring. If we had to guess, it could be in line with the GoPro Hero4 Back or Sony 4K Action Cam — except it’ll do 360, of course.

“While it is a new segment for us, it’s very much built on our heritage and innovation in the imaging space,” Nakayama says.

Corey Rich, a photographer and videographer tapped by Nikon, has been testing the KeyMission 360. Rich says the image quality is razor sharp, and was blown away by the quality of the microphone. He also hinted that the camera is affordable, although that’s to be determined.

Naturally, we need to see it to believe it: In a hands-on area, we looked at a sample video through a headset using a Sony Xperia phone (there were no actual units we could test). And while it looks good and the motion is smooth, we can’t help but feel slightly nauseous. Again, like many similar cameras, we aren’t sure if it’s an issue with the viewing hardware, i.e., the current crop of smartphones. As always, we’ll save our judgment for later, but it looks promising.

Nakayama says the KeyMission 360 is the flagship camera, and there will be other models, which may or may not have 360-degree capability. As for the name, Nakayama says, “People have missions. We wanted to provide a new expression for the images that you achieve these missions.”

In our article about camera trends in 2016, we mentioned that Nikon needs to shake up its business, and the news is certainly what we’re looking for. While you could argue that Nikon’s move isn’t revolutionary, the move into the 360-degree camera and VR space is interesting, and brings more legitimacy to VR. But it’ll be even more curious to see how it’ll progress.

Nikon Senior Vice President Nobuyoshi Gokyu says, “DSLR is a space people are familiar with. It is critical for ourselves to transform it in new ways — entry into imaging space that challenges in new ways.” It’s clear that Nikon knows it needs to make some noise. Whether the action cam market is that noise, remains to be seen.