Prototype Insta360 light field camera lets viewers move through the scene

When 360 and 3D video technologies are combined, we tend to call that virtual reality. But there’s a key limitation of current VR cameras: The point of view is fixed in space. What if the viewer could move through the scene, as if controlling the camera in real time? That’s the goal of Insta360’s new “6DOF” light field camera, one of two new cameras unveiled by the company on Tuesday, January 9, at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Looking more like an LED light panel than any traditional video camera, the prototype is actually 128 individual cameras arranged in a grid. Working together, those cameras record information on both the intensity and the direction of incoming light, compiling it all into a single image. This is the same basic idea behind the shoot first, focus later Lytro Illum, but the Insta360 camera uses its multi-perspective data to allow for six degrees of freedom (6DOF) of movement. Viewers can freely change their viewing angle by taking a step closer, back, or to either side. High and low viewing angles are also allowed, and the scene in front of them will have parallax and depth just like a real environment.

It sounds like magic, but there are a couple of limitations. In its current configuration, the camera only produces a 180-degree field of view — not a full 360 — so it’s a not yet true VR. But this is just a prototype, and Insta360 says the technology can easily scale up to 360. However, what may be the higher hurdle is that freedom of movement is limited to 1.5 feet in any direction, enough to let viewers examine an object relatively close to them, but hardly sufficient for a fully immersive experience. Still, it’s an intriguing technology that demonstrates how camera manufacturers may one day completely break through the final barrier to achieving true virtual reality.

Insta360 has said nothing about what such a 6DOF camera might cost, but did mention that information on “products incorporating [its] light field technology” will come at a later date. This leads us to believe the current prototype is likely not to become a marketable product.

The other camera Insta360 showed off today was an eight-lens professional stereoscopic 360 camera. It looks quite a bit similar to the existing Insta360 Pro, a $3,499 8K VR camera. This new model, however, is decidedly higher-end, making use of larger 4/3-inch image sensors for improved dynamic range and reduced noise in low light scenes (this is the same sensor format used by Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras). While details remain scarce, Insta360 says it will be priced “at roughly $12,000.”

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