Ricoh Theta V brings reality to VR with 4K and surround sound

The market for 360-degree cameras has expanded significantly since Ricoh launched its first Theta camera, in 2013. Despite the increased competition — from big names like Samsung and Garmin, to smaller players like Insta360 and Giroptic — Ricoh remains committed to this emerging business and is introducing the latest version, called the Ricoh Theta V.

A replacement for the Theta S (that model is being phased out, but the Theta SC remains in the lineup, as a budget option), the Theta V catches up with competing products by bringing features such as 4K video and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). But Ricoh is pioneering some new and unique features: It’s the first 360-degree camera to use a Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile processor, and it runs on a version of Android that provides expandability by way of first- and third-party apps.

Ricoh had teased the product back in April and showed off a prototype during the 2017 NAB Show in Las Vegas, but the Theta V officially unveiled on August 31 at the 2017 IFA show in Berlin, and will arrive in stores by mid-September (pre-orders start now, with a U.S. list price of $430). Digital Trends spent some time with a pre-production model prior to launch; here’s what you can expect from Ricoh’s latest 360-degree camera.

Same body, new camera

The Theta V retains the same look and feel of previous Theta models, which isn’t a bad thing. 360-degree cameras come in all shapes and sizes, but we continue to find the Theta design to be our favorite. Shaped like a TV remote control, it’s nicely sized for comfort and one-hand operation, with buttons easily accessible by the thumb (Ricoh says the Theta V is the same size as the Theta SC, but slightly lighter). It’s slim, so you can slip it inside a pocket without bother. Whereas many 360-degree cameras utilize odd designs that only frustrate, the Theta is pure joy.

It’s not perfect, however. In favor of simplicity (and probably engineering complexity), there’s still no display — status light and icons are the only ways you can tell if the camera is on and what it’s doing. We wish there were some onboard controls that allowed us to make some quick setting adjustments without having to pair with a smartphone and using the companion Theta app, which is something you can do in a camera like the Samsung Gear 360. For example, during our quick test, we wish we could trigger the self-timer.

Back in April, Ricoh had already announced its next Theta would support 4K video and spatial audio — two features that would deliver a more immersive viewing experience, especially when used in a VR headset. To achieve this, Ricoh is using a Snapdragon processor (Ricoh has not mentioned which specific processor), new 1/2.3-inch sensors, new gyros, and four built-in microphones to achieve the improved resolution and sound. Ricoh says Theta engineers worked with counterparts from its Pentax camera division to improve image quality.

The processor also helps improve performance. It’s 10-times faster than the Theta S when it comes to transfer speed, considering file sizes are four-times larger (check out our Theta S review). Ricoh says an upcoming firmware, in October, will increase the speed further by allowing real-time, in-camera stitching as the image is processed (currently, the camera spends half the time stitching, and the other-half processing).

While the f/2 wide-angle lenses remain the same, the Wi-Fi modules have been upgraded to support the latest 802.11 protocols. Also expanded is the internal memory, up from 8GB in the Theta S to 19GB. While that may seem like a big increase, remember, the Theta V is also working with larger files than the Theta S, so it remains to be seen if this is ample storage. It may be fine for short, casual photos and videos, but 360-degree content creators could find it limiting, depending on their workflow. As with previous Theta models, there is no expandable memory by way of SD cards.

And, because the Theta V supports downloadable apps, we don’t know how much room said apps will require. Granted, there aren’t many (there’s only one at launch, from Ricoh, for remote playback), but as we know from using smartphones, apps could take up a bit of memory — exactly how much, remains to be seen.

Better picture, better sound, better app

The Theta S was capable of capturing pleasing images (for a 360-degree camera), but the Theta V captures noticeably better colors and details. Improvements include increased ISO (from 1,600 to 3,200) and shutter speed (from 1/2,500 to 1/6,400), as well as more white balance options.

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Unwrapped 360-degree image sample.

What we didn’t care for in the Theta S was its video capability. There were so many artifacts in the image quality that it was unpleasant to watch, especially with a headset. Granted, at the time, photos were more important in the 360-degree space, but now, with support for 360-degree video in Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo, video quickly became as important as photo (or, as companies like Facebook would like us to think).

The Theta V brings video on par with other 4K-capable 360-degree cameras, if not better. Image quality is much improved over the Theta S, with smooth playback, good details, and accurate colors. Stitching is also good. We aren’t sure how well the Theta V performs in low light, but in a sample video Ricoh showed us, it seems to handle decently. Note that because the 4K resolution covers the entire 360-degree view, don’t expect the eye-popping 4K you’d expect from a 2D television.

Perhaps more exciting than 4K video is the spatial (surround) sound that the Theta V can record, using four microphones — two on top, and one on either side. This provides an immersive experience versus two-channel sound, particularly when wearing a headset. That means if noise is coming from a source behind your field of view, it will sound as if it’s behind you.

As we turn our body to watch a video of a group of string musicians, we could hear the direction of sound changing, based on where we were facing. Sometimes the sound cuts in and out abruptly, but for the most part, it seems to work.

However, sound from an onboard camera microphone usually isn’t the best. To deliver even better quality, Ricoh worked with Audio-Technica to develop an optional microphone (TA-1, $270) that you attach to the mini jack and tripod mount at the bottom of the Theta V (the microphone has a tripod mount at the bottom, so you can attach the combined unit on a tripod, and a side opening allows you to connect a USB cable to the camera). The four-directional mic comes with a windscreen, and sound is noticeable crisper and balanced. The accessory is pricey, but it’s there for those who value sound quality.

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Optional spatial microphone.

As of now, YouTube is the only big service to support spatial audio. However, Ricoh says Facebook is working on it, having acquired a company that specializes in spatial audio.

Although we didn’t spend much time with the new app, users can expect improved ease of use. Settings are easier to navigate to, without having to drill through menus. It’s also quicker to share to Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo. With BLE, the camera maintains an always-on connection with a phone, allowing you to quickly shoot, change settings, and add location data. Live-view and image transfers will still require a direct Wi-Fi connection.

Wireless streaming

The Theta V does away with the Micro HDMI port, replacing it with a mini jack that accommodates a new four-directional microphone accessory. In place of the Micro HDMI, the Theta V supports wireless streaming with devices that support the Miracast standard, such as Roku or the Amazon Fire Stick, which Ricoh used during a demo. (This is also made possible thanks to the Snapdragon.)

After enabling the mirroring function on the Fire Stick, you are able to use the Theta V as a remote cursor (thanks to the new gyros), similar to a Nintendo Wii Remote. Onscreen, photos and videos in the camera are displayed as thumbnails. To view, simply click on a photo or video, and you can then use the Theta V to drag-and-pan around.

Miracast playback is displayed in 720p, yet we found the image quality in both videos and photos to be surprisingly good. Our only complaint is that the remote cursor control felt sluggish and imprecise. Also, Miracast isn’t universally supported — if you use the latest Google Chromecast or Apple TV devices, for example, this function is useless to you.

The Theta V also supports live streaming when used with desktop software, to services such as YouTube. What it doesn’t support — at least, not right now — is Facebook Live. The latest 360-degree cameras offer Facebook Live streaming, so it’s a curiosity that the Theta V doesn’t, considering Ricoh as a business product, called the Theta R, that’s designed for live streaming.

When we asked Ricoh why that is, the company didn’t have a clear answer, but did mention that it’s possible that a firmware update could open up new features, such as Facebook Live support. And, because the Theta V’s Android-based OS supports downloadable apps, that could be another way to add support.

First impressions

360-degree cameras are still niche gadgets, although with products like the Theta V and support from services such as Facebook and YouTube, they are becoming more fun and less gimmicky. Should you run out and buy it? We still don’t think it’s a must-buy, but the Theta V is a good secondary camera, particular for vacations, real estate tours, Street View fanatics, and special events like weddings. While 4K video is nice on the eyes, we think it’s audio that’s been the missing link in delivering an immersive experience (the other being 3D). It’s still pricey for a niche camera, but the previous Theta S has been one of our favorite 360-degree cameras to use, and the Theta V looks promising.