Product Test: The Insta360 is Hot, But is it Hot Enough to Make Us Care About 360° Video?
The Insta360 Is Set to Revolutionize 360° image capture, if we can wrap our heads around it.
"My wife has one of those. She loves it."
"A 360 camera?"
"No, an Instant pot!"
I was holding in my hands the Insta360, the hot new 360-degree camera that everyone was talking about, and of the two filmmakers who happened to be around while I was opening its shipping package, one was more impressed that it had been shipped over in a box that originally held an instant pot. The other bystander, an avowed 360 fan, was excited to play with it. We then tried to find a time in the next two weeks to get together and test it, and we couldn't.
Which isn't something I'm used to. If I get my hands on an early EVA1 or Ronin 2 or crazy LED light, people appear and want to play with it. The Insta360 was interesting, in that it is something that everyone I showed it to claimed they wanted to play with, but the effort wasn't really made.
What's the deal with 360?
This seeming disinterest—even among filmmakers who claimed to be interested in 360—got me thinking about why. 360° video seems a lot like Twitter. An avalanche of information without organization. Probably the future of communication, possibly the destroyer of civilization. For a long time, the most prominent tool in this market was the Ozo, a platform from Nokia that was full of issues but still was able to deliver some of the most compelling 360/immerserive video experiences of the last few years.
However, Nokia announced last year that it was ending the Ozo program, and within a few weeks, the Insta360 was released, an affordable (only $3500!), 8 lens, multi-microphone, immersive recording platform. Our buddy Andrew Schwartz called it "The DVX of 360," meaning the camera that is finally affordable enough all the kids will get to play and invent. We got to spend a few days playing with it ourselves, but have to admit we are still on the fence as to whether this will be the DVX or the Panasonic HDC-SDT750 stereo camcorder.
The tech's biggest hurdle
The biggest hurdle to 360 video at this point isn't technological, it's psychological. Remember the first time you opened a new software and there were just so many buttons, switches, knobs and menus you immediately closed it and thought "I'll deal with that later." That's where 360 is right now. I've worked as a colorist for a decade, I've shot and mastered stereographic 3D work, I have a handle on the basic technical hurdles to be overcome with stitching. But my brain frankly just isn't there yet with 360.
I did a lot of the normal things I do to test tools. I tried to get as far as I can without reading the manual. I read the manual. I tried making stuff with it. I took it through to post. I tried to shoot with it in low light. Compared to every single other 360 tool I have used, the results were better than expected. From a functional standpoint, after talking to my friends who shot a lot with the OZO, there are smart upgrades: Interchangeable batteries. SD card recording. The app was easy to use. We tested the app control from another room and it worked just fine, within reason, i.e. you couldn't go multiple rooms away.
Why this isn't really a review
We wanted to test out the platform, but to call this a full review feels unfair. There's an old joke, "listening to that guy is like getting sex advice from your priest." In this case, I'm the priest, a complete 360 virgin. Everyone at NFS is interested in the future of film, but spending time with the unit didn't feel like learning a new toy in a space I understood; it felt like having to grow new areas of my creative brain to find ways to innovate within the space.
Nonetheless, like many filmmakers, I diligently set about trying to wrap my head around 360 and used the time with the Insta 360 to get hands-on with something that might be the future. By the standards of filmmaking, I thought the menu UI was a bit tricky (and impossible to use without the manual), but once reading the manual, it made more sense. Oh, and by the manual, I mean the manual I Googled and was made by a rental house, not the official manual, which wasn't necessarily perfect, which makes sense considering how fast this platform is improving.
On the plus side
I will say that the pace of updates is amazing. One thing that happens a lot with big companies dipping their toes in 360 is the updates come slowly, if at all, and then sometimes stop altogether. That has not been the case here, with constant firmware improvements and post application support coming at a pace that truly feels alive. A few weeks go by and the firmware for the camera ups resolution. Less than a year after the 8K came out, a Titan 10K unit was at NAB. A few more weeks, Mistika VR support. I just installed the beta of the stitching tool for Premiere, and it works great; point it at a bunch of media, it auto-stitches on import, and seems to do it nearly instantly.
Like all immersive capture platforms, it needs to be calibrated before a shot to get a sense of the scale of what it is capturing. A lack of calibration can make for shots that are impossible to stitch, such as this wonderful artifact of shooting with the subject close to the camera while it was clearly calibrated for a much larger space.
One other issue I noticed was that, in low light work, the exposure didn't switch evenly between cameras. Low light is tricky, but it's also a frequent job requirement, and we wanted to see how it would handle a city skyline out the window and darkness inside. As you can see, it managed to grab the city skyline just fine—impressive results actually—but exposure wasn't well coordinated between the lenses, with dark patches and noisy patches across the cameras. Considering the pace of improvements, we would be surprised if this wasn't already fixed or a fix was coming soon, but it's important to note nonetheless.
It's the best option—if you need an option
If you are interested in 360° video content, and you want to buy and not rent, this is almost definitely the smartest option. More than just the hardware (which is rugged), the commitment to continuing innovation and support is a good sign that Insta 360 is in this to win it. Yes, there is a competitor from Samsung and likely coming from others, but as we've seen with big companies, they aren't likely to really fight tooth and nail to make sure that 360 happens. They are going to come in, dip a toe, and see if money magically appears. If it doesn't print money quickly, they will move along. Insta360 is going to fight in the mud to get 360 video going.
Can you wrap your mind around it? That we can't say. Frankly, two weeks isn't enough time. We grew up watching 2D movies, any many of us spent years learning to make them well. Honestly, I think that Schwartz might be right, this is the "5D Mark II" of 360 video (to use a reference more modern, for the kids), meaning it's the platform folks will actually buy so they can shoot skate videos and indie features and all sorts of new "types" of video, and that only happens when you own a thing and play with it every weekend. Rental items are good for when you are going to plan for two months, then shoot for two days, but you can only plan for two months when you know what the hell the medium is. 360° video innovation will likely take a lot of iteration, and this is currently the best platform for doing that.
Tech specs below are listed as of publication; if the last six months are to be trusted, they will likely have improved by the time you read this. Available now for $3499 at Adorama.
- Capture 360 Videos & Stills in 8K and 3D
- Live-Stream 4K Video in H.264 or H.265
- Six 200° Fisheye Lenses (Selectable)
- Adjustable Shutter Speed
- 100 fps Slow Motion with Post-Processing
- Four Built-In Mics & AUX Mic Input
- Premiere Pro Extension with Auto Stitch Imminent
- Real-Time Image Stabilization
- Optical Flow Stitching
- Mac/Windows/iOS Control Software
- Tripod Mount Base Stand