Ricoh’s new Theta enhances resolution of 360-degree images and videos

Ricoh has unveiled its third-generation 360 spherical camera, the Theta S. It uses the same simple-to-operate design as the previous model (which will remain available), but has enhanced specs, particular in resolution and video capture. These upgrades, plus wider support for 360 content, could push the Theta brand into the mainstream. The camera goes on sale in October, and will cost $349.

Called the “industry’s most advanced fully spherical portable camera,” the Theta S uses two 1/2.3-inch 12-megapixel CMOS sensors and two fast f/2 lens with a large aperture (opening) to let in more light. As with the previous version, the Theta M15, each lens captures 180 degrees, and both images are stitched in-camera to create a true spherical 360 (horizontal and vertical), without any blind spots that are typical in other 360 cameras. The sensor is also larger than before, upping the resolution.


The Theta m15 could only capture Full HD 1080 videos at 15 frames per second (fps), for only 5 minutes. The Theta S now lets you shoot Full HD 1080 at 30 fps, for 25 minutes. This allows users like aerial photographers to shoot longer and farther. Using a new companion smartphone app, the Theta S also supports live streaming in HD, 60-second long exposure photography, and live view for framing your shot; the app also lets you play back content, share to social media, and adjust settings. For special editing and creating time-lapse video, a separate existing app, Theta+, is available, as well as the Theta software for Mac or Windows.

Ricoh kept the simple one-button design, and it remains lightweight and easy to use. Shaped like a remote control, the six-way accelerometer lets you hold it any orientation, including dangling upside-down from a quadcopter or ceiling. Buttons on the side lets you enable Wi-Fi and switch between photo and video modes (LED icons indicate status). Built-in storage has been doubled to 8GB, and Ricoh says the Wi-Fi module is four times faster than before. USB and HDMI ports are at the bottom.

To share, content can be uploaded to Ricohs website, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google Maps, and Google+. The Theta is also one of the few devices that YouTube supports, allowing you to keep the spherical experience when viewed on mobile devices or on the Web. Ricoh has an open API (application program interface, based on the Open Spherical Camera API) program that allows other apps to build support for the Theta.

Ricoh is offering a few accessories: a soft case, an attachment ring for hooks and straps, and a waterproof hard case that can be mounted on a tripod.

During an event in New York City, we had a brief hands-on with the camera. As mentioned, like the previous camera, the Theta S is simple to operate. To record a video or shoot a photo, simply press the button and you’re done. Image quality looks good, but we were in a environment with a lot of harsh coloring and difficult lighting, so we’ll hold the comments until we can try one out in a different locale; overall, photos do look better than the previous model. The app also worked well: Pairing is relatively worked well, but we had difficulty getting a live view image, possibly due to network interference.

Google Street View app

The Theta S launch coincided with the launch of Googles Street View app for iOS and Android. The app allows quick access to a popular service that was difficult to access in Google Maps on mobile devices.

“We want to make this content more discoverable,” says Luc Vincent, director of Google Maps, whether its a locals view of city or the mapping of Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Vincent says Google wanted to create a smooth experience, and unified the services offered in both the iOS and Android versions. Googles Photosphere, for creating 360 images with your smartphone, has been integrated.

As much as it is for consumption, the app is designed for content creation. Users can contribute their Street View images, especially in areas that Google hasnt already captured. Naturally, the more data Google has of some place, the better the service it can offer. One example Vincent gave is Hanoi in Vietnam, which doesnt have any Street Views but has a community of photographers who enjoy shooting Street View-style images. Users can also upload and share their images privately via a unique URL.

The app also supports 360 cameras, including the Theta. While the app will support a range of cameras, Vincent says the Theta S is the best example of a spherical camera thats available.

Industry catches up

Jim Malcolm, Ricoh’s president in the Americas, says that although it had a 360 camera since 2013, it didnt heavily promote it until it was able to “deliver image quality that was acceptable to consumers.” He also adds that Ricoh was also waiting for the industry to “catch up with us,” pointing to services that support 360 content, like YouTube and the new Streets View app. He says YouTube has more than 10,000 uploads to its 360 channel, and those are only the known public video. Compared to when the first Theta launched, the segment is gaining traction.

“We’re bringing a new industry to life,” Malcolm says. “When we looked at how to innovate [our camera business], thats where 360 cameras come in were at the beginning.”

The improved resolution something users have been requesting also helps push the Theta from a novelty gadget to a tool for visual communication, a term Malcom uses. Upcoming VR devices like the Oculus Rift require high-resolution images and videos to create an immersive experience (otherwise these headsets will make you feel sick), and while the Theta S isnt capturing 4K content, the better image quality will make a difference.

Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation.
Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation.