Product Review: Ricoh Theta S

Intro
My first reaction when reading about the original Theta m15  camera was “Ricoh made this?!”. I mean, I know of the company but their presence in the cutting edge tech arena is basically non-existent. I was intrigued by the concept but a little disappointed by the quality of the captures. Then, Ricoh returned with the Theta S which promised significant improvements over the original and I was ready to give it a try…

 

Unboxing
Not much to say about the packaging. It’s efficient while still trying to communicate class… as much as any rectangle can. The package contains the camera, travel sleeve, short micro usb cable, Quick Setup guide and some additional paper inserts.

unbox

The camera
The camera body is pretty sleek and features a hard-to-miss fisheye lens on the front and back. Direct control of the camera is made possible by 4 physical buttons and glowing status indicators that are invisible when not active. In addition to the controls, there are connections on the bottom of the unit for micro-USB, HDMI and a tripod mount. The top of the unit has the ports for the onboard microphone and speakers.

On the side of the camera are 3 small, circular buttons.
•    Power button – unsurprisingly, this button toggles the on/off state of the camera.
•    Wifi button – this controls the toggling of the onboard wifi. Leave it “on” for connecting to a mobile device.
•    Still/Video button – the switches the mode between stills and video.

The front of the device has one physical button for shutter control and, when powered off, nothing else. When the unit is powered on, the blue-glowing indicators become visible so you can determine (in addition to the power state) whether the wifi feature is on or whether you are in still or video capture mode.
Setup
Once you have the camera charged up and ready to go, you are ready to capture content but in a more point-and-shoot way that results in a lesson about the fundamental difference between this kind of camera experience and everything that has come before. You are visible in everything that you capture! You cannot hide and your hand will always seem like a gross distortion at the bottom of the image (no matter where you look in the picture) given that it’s right up next to the lenses. If you are a narcissist, this is the camera for you but for the rest of us, the default preference is to not be part of the shot unless specifically desired. Besides this consideration, there is the very real need to get your captured content off the camera and onto a device where you can view it. In an effort to satisfy both the need to get the photographer out of the shot as well as to better address the management of captured content, Ricoh offers a mobile app.

Ricoh offers both a companion app for remote control of the camera and a lightweight app for editing the captures.

thetasapp
Once you have the app on your phone, it’s a simple matter of connecting your device to the wifi “network” that the camera creates when you enable the wifi feature. After that connection is established, you just need to power the camera on in the future and then you can use the app to connect to it, take pictures/video and transfer content from the camera to your phone’s storage. In addition to the control provided through the app, it’s also the only way to determine exactly how much battery life remains in the camera. While it’s nice to have that info in the app, it feels buried and makes it obvious that there is no way of knowing the status when using the camera solo. Having the range of wifi allows you to move out of shot (while still monitoring the view from the app) so you aren’t part of the picture. Once you have the photos copied to your phone, you can view them in full 360 with navigation control and/or upload them directly to Ricoh’s site (covered later). You can, technically, share them like you would with any photo but they will appear distorted until you have software that can present the image in the 360 format.

PANO_20160305_092926_15
While you can view all captured content via the mobile app, the captured videos require some extra processing before they will be useful to anyone besides other Theta S owners. This is where the desktop software comes in.
To address the extra step for sharing videos, Ricoh also provides another lightweight tool for the desktop. In order to make use the 360 videos beyond your personal devices, you need to convert them which means both stitching together the 2 fisheye recordings as well as adding in the required meta information so navigation around the content is possible. The desktop application only provides that single function so it’s dead simple to use and pretty quick to convert (machine power depending).

Using the Camera
Taking photos is where the camera shines. Excluding low light situations, the camera takes nice, sharp photos that look even better when navigated through on a large monitor. One nice design consideration is that the camera itself is never captured in the shot. While close inspection of the image reveals the seams, the effect is still a good one. In order to achieve additional immersiveness, I attempted to view some of the captures in Google Cardboard. The mobile app provides an option for that type of formatting from directly within an image but the result is horrible. The presentation is a dramatically zoomed-in (and grainy) image that prevents access to much of the captured content. I got around this by renaming and copying the photos to my folder for Google Photospheres and that got me the presentation I was expecting. Click here for the formatted 360 pic
The videos were as disappointing as the photos were pleasing. Initially, I assumed that I had mistakenly changed or failed to change some setting that was resulting in a video resolution that is best described as “old school VHS”. After much googling, I found that it wasn’t me, it was the current state of the technology. I’ll save the specifics but the short story is that the resolution that I was expecting to see in the video is not really possible until we start exceeding 4k. For now, we get the 360 experience at the cost of perceived resolution. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a great start but it’s also clearly the weakest part of this device/experience. Click here for formatted 360 video

Ricoh provides one additional option but it feels like a something that’s still under development rather than a fully baked feature. You can use USB or an HDMI cable (with a micro-HDMI connection) to connect the camera to a computer and view the footage live. While the setup guide provided details on how to enable this mode on the camera, finding details on how to actually view the feed was another matter. I eventually fumbled my way into using VLC to make the connection and was promptly disappointed. What you get to watch live is basically the unstitched feeds from both lenses. Said another way, you get a rectangle with two fisheye views side by side. Also, since you need to keep the camera tethered to a computer in order to achieve this, it significantly limits my ability to imagine where and/or why I would use this. If the camera could provide a navigable, properly formatted live feed and do so without the tether, you’d have a pretty sweet consumer option for sharing almost any live experience. But it doesn’t, so you can’t.

Sharing captures
Once you’ve captured some stuff that you are willing to show others, you have a couple primary paths: the Ricoh product site or Youtube. For sharing your photos, the Ricoh product site is perfectly fine and it’s free. You have to enable a connection to your Facebook or Twitter account which I personally find irritating and unnecessary but finding a site that can both host and display your images the way you need them is currently a losing proposition. Ricoh doesn’t state that there is any limit to how many images you can upload but they definitely do for the video. While they permit you to upload your video to the same site, you are limited to 5MB. Let that sink in for a second……….. 5MB! Given that even a video of 10 seconds exceeds that threshold, it’s basically useless. Instead, you can use the free and unlimited option currently available on YouTube (perhaps that was the plan). YouTube has a specific section for 360 videos now and even provides instructions on how to get your videos uploaded successfully. Once you’ve got it uploaded, you can share it out like any other video on YouTube. The experience for the receiver of the shared file, however, can be quite different from the norm. When viewing one of these videos on a mobile device, the user can move the device around to look anywhere in the video. Rather than using a mouse/keyboard or tapping/dragging on the screen, moving the device around can produce a unique and more immersive experience.

Pros
Sleek design
Simple to use
Excellent still photos
Unique and more immersive option that standard photography

Cons
Battery status is buried in the mobile app
Video resolution/experience is disappointing
Sharing options are currently very limited

Summary
Generally speaking, the Theta S is a great step forward in a totally new arena of photography/videography. It’s limitations are not due to design or quality problems but a slight mismatch between expectations and the actual capabilities of the existing tech. The current batch of shortcomings should be addressed over future generations as the underlying technology (ie- 8k sensors) improves. While the experience of consuming 360 content is currently novel, there is every reason to expect this type of ‘experience capture’ to grow in use. It doesn’t take a developed imagination to realize that there are many applications of 360 capture beyond simple consumer entertainment so expect to see more of this type of image capture used in other areas.