In early 2018, I (Karl Kosko) purchased my first 360 camera (a Ricoh Theta SC2) and edited some of my first 360 video with a free 360 Video editing software (VIRB Edit). Filming in elementary classrooms, I would place the camera on a selfie stick with a small tripod base. Eventually, Rick (Ferdig) and I began using different cameras that had better recording length or quality. ‘Real world’ experience recording in a classroom taught us a few practical tips, as did our efforts at editing videos for use in methods courses and professional development. Some of the lessons learned have ended up in tutorial videos or posts on this website (or elsewhere). While many of these are useful, some are becoming quickly outdated as new and better workarounds come out (including better software, cameras, etc.). In this post, I attempt to provide some specific up-to-date recommendations but nested in more general guidelines as better solutions will, eventually, come about. To be clear, this post deals with basic logistics for recording and editing 360 videos. How to use 360 videos is covered elsewhere (and is pretty wide-ranging itself).
Hopefully this post is useful for those first getting started with recording. There are many directions one can go, but this post should have enough of ‘the basics’ to locate the proper equipment and get started with 360 video. I should note that there are abundant tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere that go beyond the initial descriptions provided here.
We’ve tried several different brands of 180 and 360 cameras over the past few years (Ricoh Theta, Yi, Samsung, QooCam, Insta360, etc.), as well as different cameras within those brands (e.g., Insta360 One X vs Insta 360 One R vs Insta 360 One X2). Previously, we had recommended the Ricoh Theta V as a good entry-level camera – but it has been discontinued. Additionally, it capped out at 4K resolution, which was fine 4 years ago but outdated now. Currently, we recommend the Insta360 One X2 for several reasons. First, it is rugged (we record in elementary classrooms… where the adults, not the kids, tend to knock over the cameras as we walk directly into them). Second, it is 5.7K resolution and has pretty decent built-in microphones (for a 360 camera… more on that below). We like that the memory is based on an SD card (so you can have loads of storage if you invest in it) and that the battery can be swapped out (for in-the-field recording). We have also found that Insta360 has, to date, been the best company in terms of standing behind their brand. I’ve emailed their customer support and gotten HONEST responses (most of the time helpful, and once a “there’s nothing we can do, here’s why” type of response). They also have tirelessly worked on their software to make the process of creating 360 content easier for the masses. Someday our recommendation may change, but currently they are the best all-around.
Our experience(s) with cameras have given us some guiding principles for when looking at new cameras. After all, there are some pretty cool devices that come out.
#1 Customer Support. The more responsive a company’s customer support is, the more they tend to invest (and believe in) their product. This also tells you how well funded a company tends to be (i.e., will they be around in 2 years). Because XR technologies are still relatively new, some companies emerge and fade quickly… or their division devoted to XR fades (Samsung Gear 360 and Yi 360 cameras are examples of the latter).
#2 Software. Every 360 (or 180) camera will have software for stitching. Some companies add extra features to their stitching process. For example, QooCam and Insta360 both stabilize the video (if the camera moves a bit) and offer color correction. Insta360 has a horizon correction, which works well if your tripod is even slightly crooked. Since you typically can’t ‘try before you buy,’ we suggest looking on YouTube for videos that review the camera software (Hugh Hou is one great source for comparing cameras, software, etc.).
#3 The Camera Specs. These are important, but we do place it as #3 in priority. For example, our first 5.7K camera (Yi 360) was, to be blunt, a pain in the rear to work with on the software-side. The camera would produce a video file for every 5 minutes and you would need to sort through which files were which when stitching. By contrast, the 4K resolution Ricoh Theta was much simpler to use despite lower resolution. It was, at the time, a clear winner in practical use. At the time of writing this post, we have 5.7K Insta360 cameras and an 8K QooCam. We prefer the 5.7K Insta360 because it is much easier to work with and the software for refining the video (beyond simple stitching) is also better / easier to use.
For the first few years we worked with 360 videos, we tended to recommend folks purchase a selfie stick with a small tripod base. Inflation has driven the cost of these higher than they used to be (I used to buy these for about $10 each). Additionally, these allow the camera to only go so high, and they are easier to knock over. This latter issue prompted me to begin making bases with solid metal disks. Fortunately, we came across a better solution (and much lighter than the metal disk base!): There are several lighting stands that have adjustable heights and with bases that can fold flat (here’s a favorite example we use). For our videos, the average viewer is an American woman (our viewers are teachers) who have an average height of 5 feet 4 inches. So, determined the height the stand would need to be so the camera lens would be at eye-level for our target audience and used a silver sharpie to mark the spot on the stand (for easy set-up). You may not need to be this crafty, but we found this workaround to save us time.
You may end up needing a different option than what we provided above. Regardless, when considering the camera stand you need, you need to think about a few general guiding principles:
#1 Price Point: Simply put, the cost of the camera stand can matter. Some folks choose to use a regular tripod rather than getting the monopod-variations we’ve used. The downside is that you can see the stand in your recordings. However, if you already have a tripod, that’s money you don’t have to spend.
#2 Height: Perspective matters (see comments about camera placement above). Height is part of camera placement and this should factor into the type of stand(s) you purchase.
#3 Space: Different stands can be physically placed in locations where others cannot. In reviewing options for stands, consider the size of the base and where you are recording.
There are a few accessories we tend to suggest people purchase on basic principles. This includes a basic case for your 360 camera to protect it and hold your cords. Depending on the camera you purchase, there are several accessories you can add-on (lens guards, cases for recording under water, additional microphones, etc.). Depending on your purposes, you may want to purchase some of these add-ons. We typically haven’t had the need for basic recording. For example, we’ve knocked our cameras over quite a bit and don’t have lens guards (if you’re filming in outdoor, rocky environments – or in a knife factory – then you may want a set of lens covers). It’s also worth being cautious about some of the extras out there. Some may be extremely useful for particular uses, while others tend to not work so well. For example, we purchased a special external microphone for our Ricoh Theta V that produced the exact same quality of audio as the camera itself (this is a reminder to watch YouTube reviews of such products).
Making a 360 Video & Sharing It
For the most part, recording a 360 video is fairly straightforward, technically speaking.:
-You place the camera.
-You click the ‘record’ button to start then stop the video.
-You ‘stitch’ the video before editing.
-Then share the video.
Camera placement sounds simple, but there’s a nuance in its logic. In our own recording, we create videos where we want prospective teachers to learn to assess children’s reasoning. If we (ourselves) were attempting to assess children’s reasoning in an elementary math lesson, we would stand proximally close to the students such that we could look at one group and be able to quickly turn our head to look at another. So, in placing a 360 camera, we put the camera where we might stand to assess children’s reasoning. Obviously, this takes some tacit professional knowledge of how teachers notice students’ reasoning. Yet it also takes some understanding of the camera itself. For one, human eyesight currently tends to be better than camera resolution (360 or standard). Additionally, the height of the camera lens may differ from your own height. So, one needs to be mindful of these limitations and caveats. There are workarounds (we learned to encourage use of white boards & markers when students are working, so we can capture what they write), but one simply needs to be aware of this. Additionally, 360 cameras tend to be set to record in a fixed location. Moving them about is sometimes fine, but can cause motion sickness for some individuals viewing your 360 content.
Stitching the video is necessary if one wants to share a spherical view of their 360 video. Your 360 camera manufacturer will have a software program for this process. For example, if you are using the Insta360 One X2, you will download Insta360 Studio to stitch your video file(s) on a desktop/laptop or the Insta360 Camera app if using a mobile device. Stitching is necessary because a 360 camera has, at minimum, two camera lenses. This essentially creates a video for every camera lens that then must be ‘stitched’ together to form your spherical view. It is AFTER stitching the video that most 360 video files can then be edited. SOME camera manufacturers are attempting to streamline this process (Insta360 leading the way on this) as having to stitch and then edit videos can take some time if the videos are lengthy.
Sharing your 360 video can be done in two primary ways: online streaming or by giving someone the file to download. For sharing the video online, there are several options (Facebook, Vimeo, Thinglink, YouTube, etc.). We’ve tended to use YouTube as viewing 360 video content there can be done easily on a phone, laptop, or VR headset (YouTube VR app). However, streaming videos will inevitably decrease the quality of the image (unavoidable even with 5G). If you want someone to have the best quality 360 video, they need to download the file. To view watch the 360 video, there are a few downloadable players. We tend to recommend VLC player because it is free. However, VLC does tend to automatically provide a ‘zoomed in’ view, so we suggest zooming out a tad when starting a 360 video.
Some 360 cameras have better microphones than others – and this built-in audio is important. Despite MANY manufacturers claiming to record spatial audio with their cameras, we have found this to either not be the case or the quality of such ‘spatial’ audio to be subpar. If you want truly immersive audio, you will need two things: an ambisonic audio microphone (such as the Zoom H3 VR) and an editing software that will merge your ambisonic audio with your 360 video (such as Adobe Premiere Pro). If using the Zoom H3 VR and Adobe Premiere Pro, we suggest using this YouTube tutorial as a guide in combining audio & video.
Something we should note is that processing the ambisonic audio with 5.7K 360 video can take significant computing power (particularly if you end up having longer video files). If you plan on creating a lot of 360 video with immersive features (like ambisonic audio) you may want to invest in a higher quality graphics card and a CPU with several cores. Additionally, the ambisonic microphone we recommend is a first order ambisonic (only 4 channels of audio). There are second order and even third order ambisonic (I’ve seen as much as 32 channel ambisonic – sound from 32 different specific directions). Unfortunately, Adobe Premier Pro can only handle four channels of audio max in terms of output. There are special workarounds needed for higher order ambisonic (we do not know if the additional channels ‘is a difference that makes a difference’).
There are more than a few solutions for editing 360 video. Some camera manufacturers provide basic editing functions with their stitching software, but you may want to add various bits of detail in the video (text, overlain images, etc.). VIRB Edit is a free 360 video editor, but it’s been free for a while and it there’s no telling how much longer it will be available (maybe forever, maybe not). Adobe Premiere Pro is currently our favorite for editing videos that you might post on YouTube or elsewhere. There are also some platforms such as Viar360 that allow you to add interactive elements (ThingLink does a good job for this with 360 photos, but we’ve found videos run slow on their platform). Again, there are many options that continue to emerge, but your preference for platform will be strongly associated with how you want people to interact with your content.
Robert Kaplinsky recently wrote a blog post about his experience. Some of the information is similar to that here, but there are different things noted which are useful – please consider reading that description as well as the one here.