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The camera that could bring virtual reality to the masses

A number of media companies have already experimented with virtual reality journalism – most recently, The New York Times via its unique partnership with Google Cardboard and the production of an 11-minute virtual reality film called “The Displaced.” However, the ability to produce – not just consume — high-quality VR content quickly and cheaply is still largely out of the grasp of the average person.

One solution to this problem might be the LucidCam, a stereoscopic, 3D 180-degree virtual reality camera. The LucidCam, which officially launched just days before The New York Times-Google Cardboard experiment went live this past weekend, could help to bring VR content creation to the masses. To take a shot, a user simply holds the camera and presses a button. Since the camera has a 180-degree field of view, users just hold the camera steady – there’s no need to do a dramatic panoramic sweep.

The LucidCam is part FlipCam, part GoPro, with the look and feel of a slim smartphone. It’s meant to be a point-and-shoot camera for capturing VR content on the go. It’s portable and mountable, and makes it possible to create high-quality content from a first-person perspective. Thanks to its 180-degree field of view and true depth perception, the camera creates the sensation that you are really there. You can then watch this VR content on your smartphone, with or without a Cardboard-style viewer, or on a VR headset.

The LucidCam is the product of Lucid VR, a company founded by a group of Berkeley and Stanford grads, who started developing the camera nearly two years ago. The LucidCam has already gone through a number of iterations and prototypes, to the point where the next step is to take it to mass production. To make that possible, LucidCam is in the middle of raising $100,000 on IndieGoGo. With 45 days to go, the product has already pulled in over $70,000 from 180 backers, with 124 people already pledging $299 to get early access to the LucidCam when it launches in mid-2016.

As Han Jin, the co-founder and chief executive of Lucid VR, told me in a telephone conversation, the goal is to put VR content creation in the hands of the average consumer, a strategy he refers to as “VR for everyone.”

“There are infinite applications for virtual reality, but the potential for truly creative content is wasted if only a limited number of people have access to the tools for capturing VR footage,” Jin says.

Jin was inspired to create the LucidCam by his family in China, with whom he wanted to share moments and memories from his life in America. There’s only so much that you can see via a 2D screen, and virtual reality was one way that family members such as his grandmother could experience his life via full immersion.

The immediate applications go beyond just first-person family videos. As Jin told me, ideas for user-generated VR content continue to roll in from early users of the LucidCam. There are people who want to create experiences such as virtual reality yoga classes or virtual reality weddings. Jin refers to this as the “untapped potential of the long tail of innovation.”

You can already see that “long tail of innovation” on YouTube, which is starting to embrace consumer-generated VR content, especially VR content related to travel and tourism. As with any user-generated content, though, this content can be hit and miss. The YouTube VR content is organized into categories you might not expect — “The Animal Point of View” stands out — and hints at completely different ways of viewing the world around us.

The best content, Jin told me, is still being made by the professionals, not the amateurs. Companies such as JauntVR, for example, are applying Hollywood-style production techniques to create cinematic, immersive VR experiences. One that Jin suggests everyone check out is a virtual reality video of Sir Paul McCartney live in concert singing “Live and Let Die.”

As a result, you can already see two extreme scenarios for VR play out.

The first scenario is the “amateur” scenario: VR becomes a user-generated hit and widely accessible, but most of the content is really just high-tech Vines, GIFs or Instagram videos – funny or amusing stuff you capture in 3D as you go about your life and that can be consumed in quick bursts. Maybe it’s a scene from a party you’re attending, a cute thing your cat just did, or a monster dunk that you happen to capture on camera while sitting courtside at an NBA game. It’s VR content you don’t need to edit, and can upload quickly to a smartphone or VR headset. It’s VR content so easy to create – just point and shoot – that even your grandmother can do it.

The other scenario is the “professional” scenario: VR remains the preserve of deep-pocketed media and production companies capable of crafting high-end experiences that take viewers to places they would normally never be able to experience, such as dangerous war zones or exotic foreign locales such as Cuba. These videos would also be shot with a lot of rigs and mounts and offer full 360-degree immersion (compared to the 180-degree immersion offered by the LucidCam).

To ensure that the first scenario happens, Jin told me that the LucidCam team is working hard to keep the camera at an affordable price point. One pricing model, he says, is the GoPro model. The camera, he says, needs to be available at an accessible price point and have just enough features to offer a superior experience, but not be so complex that it’s hard to operate. That being said, he’s hoping to keep the price of the camera at launch below $499.

Ultimately, in order for VR to go truly mainstream, it needs to build in a social factor, says Jin. Staring into a dark cardboard device is inherently an anti-social experience. Even walking around in a dark room with lots of other people with VR headsets strapped to their faces doesn’t sound terribly social. That’s where it might be up to the crowd to come up with applications for VR that go far beyond anything thought of by conventional media companies or traditional brands.