Action cams have become stupidly popular over the last couple of years. The whole world seems to be strapping rugged little video cameras to themselves/their pets/whatever, and, of course, it’s an essential tool for motorcyclists wanting to vlog their adventures.
I’d be surprised if the majority of amateur movie makers weren’t rocking some derivative of a GoPro: it’s the de facto action cam. Which means most people can record footage in at least 1080p resolution, if not glorious 4K. How the heck, then, do you make your super-awesome movies stand out from the crowd? Well, people, let me introduce you to 2016’s biggest player in action cam tech: virtual reality.
Or, if you want to be technical about it: 360 degree video. Unlike a regular action cam, which captures a flat image wherever you point the camera, a VR cam captures a 360 degree image all around the camera position.
For regular YouTube movie viewers this is a dream come true - instead of of your fans being restricted to whatever you want to show them in your videos, they get to choose exactly what perspective they want to view the movie from. So imagine, if you will, you’re recording a 360 video on top of your helmet: instead of the usual forward view of you riding, they could scope out the entire area around your noggin. It puts the viewer in control, not you.
Not only does this make videos much more immersive, it means you don’t need to record multiple camera angles on your bike, because you’re automatically getting the whole picture. It’s like actually being there. And as a viewer it makes a good case for jumping on the VR bandwagon and donning a pair of VR glasses to totally immerse yourself in movies - using your head to look around, rather than fiddling with your mouse cursor.
YouTube (and Facebook) currently supports VR videos, so those who subscribe to your channel will love you for it as they’ll be able to feel like they’re actually there with you.
Easier Said Than Done
Convinced? Good; you’re in for a wild ride. To record in 360 degrees, you need a suitable camera. There are a few options right now, including the 360 Fly 4K, GoPro’s Omni, and the Kodak PixPro 360 4K. The Omni costs a humongous $5,000, so unless you’re doing this for a living and have a healthy budget on tap, you can just go ahead and skip that one right now.
Then there’s the 360 Fly 4K, which looks great and costs a more palatable $500. But as it’s a single camera it only records a 360 x 240 video, so you don’t quite get a full VR experience. Interestingly, Bell is planning to release the Bell Star 360Fly, which will integrate a camera into the the top of the lid, but there’s no word on a release date yet. It’ll probably be a wallet-emptier, too.
That leaves us with Kodak’s baby. It’s a dual camera setup, so you get a full spherical 360 degree image, and it’ll set you back $900. OK, so that’s not chump change, but you’re getting a lot of camera for your cash. In the box you get two 4K cameras, a wrist remote control ,and various mounts - including a suction cup and extending selfie stick.
Other packs are available, including one specifically for a 3DR SOLO drone; you can also get a single camera ‘Premier’ pack, which is packaged with some motorcycle-friendly accessories such as a bar mount and adhesive helmet mounts.
Personally I’d say that if you’re planning to use the PixPro mainly for motovlogging you should get the single pack first, see how you get on with it, then, if you want the full VR experience, you can always grab an extra camera and further accessories at a later date. It works out at about the same amount of cash either way.
Lights, Camera, Action
So, we know what it does but just how well does it do it? Before you get into the PixPro you have to expel all thoughts from your mind of how it compares to a GoPro. Just don’t do it, OK. You're comparing apples to oranges. As a flat image the flagship GoPro Hero4 Black will ace the PixPro all day long, because 4K resolution in that sort of space is always going to look better. It’s just a fact of size versus pixel density; the bigger the screen the more resolution you need.
But the PixPro shows you a much, much bigger piece of the pie, so the tradeoff in image quality is the kind of interactivity that a GoPro can only dream of. Still, the PixPro is rocking 4K per cam, so it should perform well. OK, it’s not going to kick butt like the GoPro Omni, which is outfitted with a - quite frankly - ridiculous six Hero4 Black 4K cameras, but as the saying goes: "You pays your money..."
(Nick is English and we're still teaching him how to write for Americans. "You pays your money and you takes your choice" is a British phrase often used to stress the idea that the consumer is responsible for his or her decisions. -Ed)
Having said this, the Omni isn’t something you’d want to take everywhere with you, anyway; it’s a proper unit. The PixPro is much more useable, whether you opt for one or two cams. It’s not quite as small as a regular action cam, and at 128g per cam it’s a bit heavier. But it’s still easily packable and when it’s mounted you probably wouldn’t notice its extra chunkiness.
Getting to Grips
On the usability side of things, the PixPro has a straightforward menu, with one button for selecting between camera recording modes (such as video and picture) and one for adjusting settings within each mode. There’s also a big record button, as well as a WiFi button for connecting the camera to a device. Once you’ve worked your way through the menu a few times you get the hang of it. Not perfect, but as easy as many other cams I’ve come across.
Using two cameras at the same time is a little trickier. You’ll need the remote control, which comes with the dual pack (unless you buy it separately) as this enables you to dual record with the press of a single button - instead of awkwardly trying to press both camera buttons at exactly the same time. Pairing them both to the remote is a fiddly, but once you’ve done it you’ll only need to do it again when you manually power down both the cameras.
The 1.0-inch LCD screen serves as your window into what’s happening on the camera, but I found this to be tricky to read even at the best of times; it’s just too small. Thankfully, you can download an app for your mobile (Android or iOS), which makes it easier to control the cameras - allowing you to check out live recordings, change settings or playback your videos, and even upload them straight to the internet. A neat bonus of being a slave to Google is that Android phones can connect to the PixPro with a simple tap of its back via near field communications (NFC).
The PixPro 360 4K comes, as you would expect, with a 4K mode, but it’s not just the one. You get spherical 4K, which is what you should choose to record for VR. And you get 4K in the more traditional flat style of movie recording, a la GoPro. So, if you want to mix up your mode of video capture you have the option. At 30fps, the flat 4K mode is technically as good as it gets for amateur action videos.
There are plenty of other presets, too, my favourites being a 60FPS 1080p mode for smoother, more realistic recording, and a high-speed mode for slow-mo footage. Unlike the Hero4 Black, which does this in 1080p, the PixPro is restricted to 720p so the results are naturally not quite as good. Still, the choice is there if you want it.
You can also shoot 8MP images, if you wish, but let’s face it: you’re probably going to want to shoot VR if you’re buying a VR action cam.
So how does its main function perform? Well, pretty good actually.
As highlighted earlier, 4K isn’t quite enough in pixel terms to make every part of the image pop since it’s such a big area to cover. You will notice that the overall picture is blockier than you might be used to. But, grab those VR shades, spend 20 minutes whirling around like a lunatic inside an action movie and, trust me, all is forgiven when it comes to a slight drop in image quality.
That said, I was quite unimpressed with the audio. The built-in stereo mic is woefully inadequate for recording sound. The problem here is wind noise: the PixPro damn well hates it. The first time I did a test recording I had to check whether the wind-cancelling option was actually turned on.
It was. Though it does make a bit of a difference when you activate it, it’s essentially the lesser of two evils. Recording at low speed on a bicycle picked up a surprising amount of wind noise, and on the open road with the camera attached to my front fairing (admittedly where it gets hammered by wind) playback sounded like standing next to an earthquake. This could be a deal-breaker for some motovloggers, though if - like me - you’ve invested in a decent external mic, it’s not really an issue.
Other than this, my only major gripe with the capabilities of the PixPro 360 4K is in the cutting room floor. Once you’ve got your recordings you can easily connect to a PC or Mac and transfer your video over a USB cable - nice and straightforward. But you’ll also need to download the PixPro software, which - believe you me - isn’t that great. Aside from being a little unprofessional to look at, it’s hard to know exactly what to do once you’re in there, and Kodak has curiously left this out of the instruction manual. Maybe they’re too embarrassed to deal with it?
Once you’ve spent an hour or two bumbling about, you can upload a 360-degree video that people can interact with on YouTube or Facebook. I chose the former social site, and within a few hours of uploading (we’re talking a couple of gigs worth of file here), I had a proper VR video online (you can see the results here).
OK, so it’s not going to win me any Oscars, but you can imagine the possibilities. In fairness, this was also done with just one camera. Get both cameras recording footage and it adds a whole new dimension of fun.
For dual videos you need to download the PixPro stitching software. Again, it’s not the PixPro’s finest moment, but after finding an online tutorial I was able to stitch together the two movie halves and get a full VR video together. No matter how many settings I adjusted I was unable to get the stitch lines perfectly synced, but from what I can tell from other PixPro owners, this isn’t unusual, it’s just a limitation of the hardware and software. It’s good enough for me ,anyway.
Should You Get One?
Foibles aside (the audio recording being my main bugbear) I’d thoroughly recommend this camera if you want to add a sense of dimension to your movies that no amount of camera angles will ever capture. Having said that, if you’re the type that likes to control what your viewers see and reward them with the magic of your editing skills you might find the VR side of things a bit too... meh.
A touch gimmicky for motorbike riders, perhaps, but if you’re going to be recording more than your daily grind to work or your weekend ride, then it’ll be a great companion for your motovlogs and will surely gain you a big following.