Facebook Imagines the Future of 360-Degree Virtual Reality Video

The company has designed a high-end 3D, 360-degree video camera system, the Surround 360, which it will offer as an open-source project.

Facebook video camera system

Facebook is pushing into the creation of 3D and virtual reality content for Facebook and Oculus users with its latest project, the Facebook Surround 360 3D video capture system, which it developed and now aims to see through to fruition as an open-source project.

The Surround 360 project, which was unveiled at the company's annual F8 Conference for developers in San Francisco on April 12, was created to find innovative designs that could capture 360-degree video for compelling content that can be viewed on Facebook's social media platform and by users of Oculus virtual reality products. Facebook acquired Oculus for $1.9 billion in March 2014 to expand its social media footprint in a new direction.

Facebook plans to release its reference designs for the Surround 360 project in the near future as an open-source project on GitHub and will watch to see if other companies begin developing versions of the concept on their own to use it or sell it to others. The company will also offer the software for such a device as an open-source project as well.

The design uses 17 cameras that are bolted to an aluminum chassis which is enclosed by an outer shell made of powder-coated steel, according to an April 12 post on the Facebook Code Blog. The multiple images are later stitched together using special software built with computational imaging algorithms that blend it all together before generating a final video image.

"The stitching code drastically reduces post-production time," the post states. "What is usually done by hand can now be done by algorithm, taking the stitching time from weeks to overnight."

The device design, which Facebook calls a production-ready 3D-360 hardware and software video capture system, features 14 wide-angle cameras along its circumference, a fisheye camera looking upward and two more cameras on the bottom.

Using new cloud-based software, the camera can collate and render the 360-degree footage in real time, according to a recent eWEEK story. The resulting imaging is meant to be seen using a VR headset. Facebook claims the Surround 360 is the best-designed camera of its kind with the ability to record for multiple hours without overheating.

The prototypes built so far by Facebook have cost about $30,000 to build on average, but it is not known how much such a device would cost if built for retail sales to movie production companies or others. Facebook is not planning on building or marketing the devices on its own, but has been developing the concept due to the tie-ins with its businesses.

The company instead sees the project seeding the market with viable technical designs and research through open-source creativity.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment to eWEEK in more detail about Surround 360.

Facebook's interest in VR and 360-degree video has been expanding since its Oculus purchase.

In March, the first $599 Oculus Rift VR virtual reality headsets began shipping to buyers in some 20 countries and regions around the world, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Buyers can also buy their Rift VR viewer in a bundle with an Oculus-Ready PC through Amazon, BestBuy and the Microsoft Store. Also in March, Oculus announced that some 30 new VR gaming titles will be available to play on the new devices as the first Rift VR headsets begin shipping. The 30 titles will be joined by more than 100 additional titles through the end of 2016.

The Rift is equipped with dual active-matrix organic LED (AMOLED) displays that are designed to provide users with incredible visual clarity as they explore virtual worlds with the device. The Rift also uses an infrared LED constellation tracking system that provides precise, low-latency 360-degree orientation and position tracking for users for accurate and fluid control and operation when playing games and simulations.

The global virtual reality headset market is expected to bring in about $895 million in revenue in 2016, but while 77 percent of that revenue will come for premium-priced products from Oculus, HTC and Sony, the actual per-device sales totals will be dominated by lower-priced headsets from a myriad of vendors, according to a new report from research firm Strategy Analytics. The report looked at the VR headset market and predicted that three of the latest devices, the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the coming Sony PlayStation VR, will bring in the bulk of the segment's revenue this year. At the same time, though, those higher-priced devices will only make up about 13 percent of the 12.8 million VR headsets that Strategy Analytics predicts will be sold in 2016, according to the report.

Most of the growth in VR headsets will come from smartphone-based products, while VR systems that work with PCs and game consoles "will barely exceed 1.7 million devices shipped globally in 2016 due to prohibitively high pricing," the report continues.